“Ten Tips for Settling In to Leadership” by James Eldon @EldonPrincipal (Blog 10 2018-19)

In September I started my second headship. Some thoughts about being a new leader…

Teaching English Literature, Binary Opposition theory is brilliant for exploring tensions and challenges within a text. Good vs Evil, Rich vs Poor, Women Vs Men. As a new leader in a new organisation you can find yourself anxiously caught between ‘leadership oppositions’. Am I being too dour and stern? Too informal and humorous? Like a pilot for a TV show, you think the plot’s going to work out but you haven’t yet found your character’s groove. Your new institution will have experienced different performances of the role of ‘headteacher’ or ‘head of department’ before, some award winning, some cancelled after one season. The staff will have a view on what works or what they like and inevitably you will not fulfil all their requirements.

‘Be yourself’ is the simplistic response, ‘be real’, let them accept you as you are. Yet the role of a leader is, especially at the beginning of a new job, just that – a ‘role’ you are seeking to master and excel in. Different contexts demand different skills and leadership qualities. Your institution may have had an outstanding leader and you are filling big boots, it may have been through turbulence and lack in confidence, it may have simply drifted and need refreshing and new energy. Whatever the challenge, you will deploy different aspects of your personality and be regularly checking on whether you are being effective. Sometimes when you are new you can get this wrong, too stern where delicacy was needed, too easy going when a challenge demanded more drastic intervention. Yet as you settle, and the institution settles around you, your intuition will become attuned to the temperature of any situation and you will lead instinctively. This takes time and you will still, on occasion, stumble as you are tired, worried or just misread a problem.

How can you ease this settling in period?

  1. Find a confidant with whom you can be yourself and you can confide your anxieties when you either made a mistake or want to get feedback on how well you are adjusting to the new organisation.
  2. Meet the people! In small groups and as many one to ones as you can find the time for, meet the staff and you will definitely be given insights into what they have experienced before in terms of leadership and what they hope for in the future… from you!
  3. Admit mistakes. Things will go wrong. Talk about why and how you’ll fix it without embarrassment. Change management is not linear, you will experience setbacks.
  4. Celebrate small victories and the green shoots of change. Chant success in every forum available but explain how the success was achieved and is important to the next set of challenges.
  5. Don’t avoid the fights everyone wants you to have. Whether it be a group of students who have begun to believe they’re untouchable, a member of staff who blatantly flaunts the rules or a system which self-evidently doesn’t work – you have to accept this challenge. You might not ‘win’ in an absolute way, but you will have confirmed that you are on the side of the righteous and the staff who want you to succeed (nearly all of them!) will be impressed that you have grasped what will probably be a long flourishing thorn.
  6. Erode the negative with the odd demolition job. You will face criticism and doubters, especially if you arrive after a period of turbulence where lots of leaders have come in and failed. My previous school had 14 heads in 8 years before I arrived, the staff had experienced every initiative that was in the educational ether so greeted change with a degree of cynicism. Being told ‘we’ve already done’ or ‘that didn’t work here’ is tough. Find out why it failed before and correct those mistakes and if it’s a key change that is being dismissed throw as much leadership capacity at it as is available. The previous failing is one of leadership – this time with the right thinking it will work. Eventually! You will need to grit your teeth through the initial days/weeks when there will inevitably be ‘I told you so’ eyebrow raising when problems occur. Try to resist being too smug when you over come these teething problems and success is achieved!
  7. Remembering that ever useful Chinese proverb ‘fight the fights you can win’ – even though you know a system/leader is not delivering, you might not have the capacity to tackle it straight away or have a succession plan in place. I once supported a new head who, within a term, had 12 HR battles going on. This drowned her and sunk any positive plans that she was seeking to embed.
  8. Who makes you laugh? Seek these people out during the initial months so that your perspective is calibrated, and you are reminded that life cannot always be serious. The angst of a difficult challenge will fade as time washes up the next set of questions to answer. Humour is so important to surviving this induction period and that includes laughing at yourself. I trialled a new school lunch arrangement on the day we served Christmas dinner. My promise of shorter dinner queues was squashed by plating up sprouts and stuffing. I shared the faux-pas with staff and had to face the indignation of the student body with humility.
  9. Seek out or demand a mentor – someone to off load to and someone who can challenge you but also shine a light on the successes you have achieved as well as walking with you through the darker corners of the pathway to school improvement. Even if it’s just to rant and swear, the mentor should be a balm to the inflammations which get you down.
  10. Love coffee. With a zealous passion. And Haribo.

Don’t give up, be kind to yourself and I promise one day in the future you will look back and be proud of the resilience you showed to win through the difficult early days. The monumental effort you put in during these early days will always be remembered by the staff you lead and will be the foundation for lasting success.

The very best of luck.

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