Leadership and Management VS

Prime Ministers vs Headteachers – WHO do make the BEST leaders and why?

The demands of leadership on Prime Ministers and Headteachers are colossal. Leaders must have conviction; the capacity to communicate and persuade; they must manage people and communities; they must translate their convictions to policy detail and then ensure successful implementation of their policies. All the while they must be the relentless and charismatic figurehead and carry the hopes and dreams of others alongside their own personal ambitions. In this blog, Max Kelly draws on the work of political commentator Steve Richards to analyse the demands of leadership and to draw a correlation about the qualifications necessary to lead a country and to lead a school.

The country is looking to elect a Prime Minister

He or she must have the following qualifications:

He or she must be a political teacher with a skill for explanation and making sense of complex issues. This is an essential qualification.

He or she must be able to manage a party that is bound to be divided, and must also lead that party with a sense of purpose and idealogical verve.

He or she must respond astutely to the demands of the media at any time of day.

He or she must link values to policies in ways that bind a party and appeal to the wider electorate.

He or she must show a deep sense of understanding of the wider currents of domestic and foreign policy and a developed sense of political history.

He or she must read the political rhythms in order to assess correctly the space available to act as Prime Minister.

Highly desirable: experience of government before seeking to lead one.

Voters are expected to take into account the constraints on a prime minister when making an appointment, but probably will not do so.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

I’ve recently read an excellent book called “The Prime Ministers” by @steverichards14 which gives an account – historical and biographical – of each of the ten Prime Ministers of the modern era. For all its glorious documenting of events and the responses each incumbent of Number Ten made to world and domestic events of the time, the book is really an exploration of leadership, and makes an argument around the essential qualities of leadership each Prime Minister needed to have, actually had, and did not have.

The Prime Ministers (2020) by Steve Richards (Atlantic Books, London)

The list which opens this blog, taken as a direct quotation from the Steve Richards book, is what the author comes to define as the person specification for the role of Prime Minister, and he draws on the stories of those who have held the role to unearth the lessons of leadership they tell.

My interest in leadership is evident, I would hope, from the articles and observations I have made over the years; indeed my own website carries the tagline “school leadership and things like that.” I thought it would be fascinating to look at the leadership qualities demonstrable by those in the highest office of public service and analyse whether there was any correlation with the leadership attributes necessary in school management, particularly headship.

Much is written about school headship. Two of the most frequent reflections, certainly by those who speak with the authority of holding or having held the role, are as contrary as they are common. “Headship is the best job in the world” and “headship is the loneliest job in the world.”

Richards’ arguments imply a similar case for Prime Ministers, though his telling reflections takes a darker turn when he observes:

Each modern prime minister ached to reach the very top, and then discovered that power often made them miserably neurotic and insecure rather than euphoric.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Of course there are those in headship who have found the same – a job that promised more than it was able to deliver in terms of professional or personal satisfaction. Indeed, there are those who have succumbed to the pressures of the job and we all know people who fall into this category. In this regard, Prime Ministers and headteachers can find some common ground: but Richards’ point was all inclusive. This was an outcome applicable to all Prime Ministers. In the world of education, a lot of headteachers still consider the job to be the best in the world, even when in the middle of a very challenging situation and struggling to keep their head above water. Even when seemingly unable to share information or talk to others in moments of sheer job loneliness, they regard the job as an unrivalled privilege to hold.

And what of the ambition referenced in this example? Prime Ministers “ache” for the chance to reside in No. 10. A lot of us will still recall Gordon Brown’s resolute determination to become Prime Minister – an ambition that was ruthless and ruthlessly obvious to all. In contrast, whilst most of the headteacher colleagues I know held that enduring professional ambition for themselves (I would certainly describe myself as someone who ached for the role) a lot of headteachers find the job thrust upon them. There are tales a-plenty of those who assumed the role under unforeseen circumstance, stepping up as an interim and 24 years later looking back and thinking “what the hell just happened?” And there is an almost constant narrative in the press and media which paints a picture of a recruitment crisis in headship and how unattractive the job currently appears to be.

For Prime Ministers, there are none in the modern era who acquired the thony crown without having coveted it for some considerable time. However the correlation between ambition, job attractiveness and recruitment is drawn further in an observation from Richards that also takes in the demands of the role and the qualifications required to meet them:

There is a leadership crisis in the UK. Leaders, or potential leaders, seek to rule in an era when right-wing populists are flourishing, globalisation generates deep insecurities, and Brexit presents a seemingly never-ending set of complexities. Yet none appear to possess the communication skills, the depth, the guile, ability to manage parties and the capacity to espouse credible policies that chime with values or deeply held convictions.

Most of those contemplating putting themselves forward show a shortage of qualifications, though no lack of self-confidence. A successful TV interview, well received on Twitter, is enough to get some politicians wondering whether they can be the next Prime Minister.

The demands of leadership are high. The bar is set low.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

At the risk of upsetting some colleagues in headship, I know of many recent appointees who have experience only of one school; experience in teaching only one year group or key stage; experience of only one division of the sector of young people, families and education; experience of only a few years. The parallel here is obvious – the leadership crisis that Richards identifies is alive and present in the education sector too. Funding, investment, training and succession planning are all generally weak in education today. This leads to less qualified people being put in roles that demand much more. As we weaken this pool, we weaken the conviction, belief, and ultimately passion of that pool too.

Read about me and my level of experience here

A recent recruitment exercise in my own schools to appoint TLR status teachers to senior roles, including SENCo, resulted in a dearth of applications, and of that small pile of forms, the majority were woefully unqualified in terms of experience. Its a pattern that echoes up the chain of leadership.

In this respect, the bar is similarly set in the Prime Ministerial universe as it is in that of headteachers. But Richards set out a person specification – a job description for leadership, if you will – and it is against that in which we will examine the similarities and differences. Richards does make clear that Prime Ministers are “human” and that the demands of the job and qualifications required to fulfil it are such that “none had all of the qualifications of leadership – perhaps such candidates for power do not exist.” The same is undoubtedly true of headteachers. Their successes, and failures, are nearly always rooted in a combination of the human condition and their ability to make sense of the criteria for leadership: sometimes the circumstances will conspire against them; and sometimes their personal qualifications and ability is unequal to the task. And sometimes, just sometimes, the vision, passion, conviction, qualification, experience and drive of the individual matches (and exceeds) the role ahead of them.

  1. He or she must be a political teacher with a skill for explanation and making sense of complex issues. This is an essential qualification.

A central plank to Richards’ assertions about successful Prime Ministers focuses on their ability to carry people with them.

Successful Prime Ministers are political teachers… making complex ideas and contentious policies become reassuringly accessible.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Whatever your personal views of Margaret Thatcher’s politics, and legacy, few can argue that she was, as Steve Richards frames it “the great change-maker of modern prime ministers… and the most analysed of modern prime ministers… The reasons for her enduring interest are obvious – she was a determined, wilful reformer, transforming not only her country, but her party, too.”

First and foremost in her repertoire of leadership qualities were her skills as a political teacher. All leaders announce policies and take strategic positions. Many do so most days of the week. Surprisingly few explain why they are doing so. They make announcements as if the declarations need no explanation. A successful leader, Thatcher was an instinctive teacher.

The most effective leaders explain as well as announce. Thatcher was explaining what she was up to most of the time, in a populist language that voters could easily relate to.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

In school headship, the ability to explain strategic positions and how/why decisions are reached is crucial in terms of navigating ones way through a myriad of potential disasters. To cite one such example I turn to the thorny matter of class structures and which teachers will cover each class.

This is an issue that appears to have gathered a certain momentum in recent times. Rather like football’s “Transfer Deadline Day” which peacefully existed for years before gradually building up into the peaked frenzy of just a few years ago in the dawning age of rolling 24hr Sports News and social media gossip feeds, class arrangements for the beginning of a new academic year have gone from uncontentious decisions, barely noticed, to the subject of fevered speculation amongst ansty and impatient parents in the Facebook age. For the modern headteacher, navigating these choppy waters can be treacherous.

Similarly for teaching staff, “knowing where you’ll be” has become ever more important earlier than ever before, and in keeping with the football world metaphor, teachers are beginning to approach the season with a negotiating line. Quite where the empowerment has come from, I know not, but the creep is there.

As with so much in school leadership, I have got things spectacularly wrong from time to time. But one learns. This notion of being a teacher-as-a-leader has helped me when conveying messaging because I now explain the decision as well as announce it. This year, for example, I compiled a short but powerful PowerPoint which detailed the various factors that I had to take into consideration when making decisions about class structures. Budgets, use of budgets against financial regulations, central staffing allocations, privileged information (such as pregnancies, retirements, staff illnesses), physical constraints in terms of buildings and rooms, staff preferences and strengths, my own assessment of teacher performances and strengths and areas of development, parental views – all factors which to varying degrees of weight added to the decision making process. It is never as simple as some people think – “just put X into Y6, problem solved.” Just doesn’t work. But until I started to explain that, I was always going to come up against a certain level of backlash, be it from staff, parents or the wider community.

The presentation was an eye-opener, and when sympathetically delivered to multiple staffing teams, governors and support staff, it helped to explain the decision as well as announce it. It dramatically softened resistance and upset to difficult decisions that meant some people didn’t get what they had hoped for.

Whilst this worked for staff messaging, I had to explain in a different way to the parent community. Carefully managed and planned messaging, firstly around the expected timeline and why this timeline had to exists (e.g. once the budget had been received, once financial analysis had been undertaken, and crucially once the resignation date had passed) was followed with messaging around process – “I need to speak to my teachers“, “I have to agree with Governors” etc – an almost constant narrative that gave an implied explanation that a detailed and difficult process was being undertaken: as indeed it was. Through leading with explanation – being a teacher about the decisions and focusing on the “why” as well as the outcome – one carried the decision through with little resistance and a generally supportive stakeholder base.

  1. He or she must be able to manage a party that is bound to be divided, and must also lead that party with a sense of purpose and idealogical verve.

Jim Callaghan as Prime Minister in the 1970s presided over a deeply divided Cabinet and party: the divide was idealogical – what they stood for and how to achieve it. Callaghan’s astute handling of division is another lesson in Prime Ministerial leadership that applies to headship. Richards notes that Callaghan’s greater successes in the role were attributable to his mastery at achieving unity:

The management of divided Cabinet was Callaghan’s greatest triumph as prime minister, a triumph of leadership.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Naturally the difference in terms of the political and education worlds are pointed in some ways in this respect, but the lessons are there. Headteachers may not preside over staff teams of such idealogical difference that Government itself can fall apart and trigger national soul-searching and General Elections. But some schools do suffer from lack of direction, caused sometimes by varying philosophical views amongst the staff and wider community.

So, for headteachers to be successful it is about developing the right team in the building, a team that believes in the project and a team that can then convey that belief and that ideology to the wider community. In a nutshell, we call it “singing from the same song sheet.” It’s about being clear with all partners about your beliefs as a leader; it’s about building a vision; its about realizing the wider goals to which you are a part; and its about bringing people with you. The best people. And helping to make them better through appraisal, through coaching, through CPD and through expectation. Never being afraid of helping people become better at something than you are and avoiding obsession with control. Authority is different to control; delegation is different to control. That, for what its worth, is what I truly believe.

Alex Ferguson, the most successful football boss of all time, sums this philosophy up beautifully:

At united we had plenty of people who could manage aspects of our activities far better than I could. The head groundsman knew far more about the technology of soil management and irrigation than I did. The doctors managed a realm whose subtleties I could not pretend to understand. The head of our youth academy knew far more than I about the abilities of each of the lads in the programme. I slowly came to realize that my job was different. It was to set very high standards. It was to help everyone else believe they could do things that they didn’t think they were capable of. It was to chart a course that had not been pursued before. It was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.

Alex Ferguson

Ferguson, Alex (2015) “Leading”, Hodder and Stoughton, London

As a headteacher, I’ve not been afraid to encourage staff to move on. The bus is always moving and the passengers upon it want to travel this particular route. If that’s not you, get off at the next stop. Division at the idealogical level in a school leads to unrest, cliques, and sometimes wilful defiance. Like Prime Ministers in Cabinet, or leaders of parliamentary parties, skilful school leaders need to recognise the potential for this and be ready to counter it effectively.

  1. He or she must respond astutely to the demands of the media at any time of day.

Whilst reference here is clearly given to Prime Ministers in the wake of the emergence of 24hr rolling news and endless Twitter commentary from journalists, professional pundits and the general public, headteachers are not completely immune to the effects of what feels like an almost constant spotlight.

For Prime Ministers, of course, the glare is almost always personal. With the rise of instant news and social media, it has created a need for Prime Ministers to develop a new skill in the digital age. Richards notes that for leaders of a different age, they may not have the leadership qualities required for today:

Perhaps Wilson would not have survived for so long as Prime Minister in the era of rolling news and Twitter, when fleeting rumours can become a full-blown political crisis for a leader in the space of hours.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Harold Wilson’s citation here is made because he enjoyed a hugely positive media coverage as he first ascended to power. The positive press helped sustain a lengthy honeymoon period for him. But when the press coverage went against him, as it started to following the devaluation crisis of the late 1960s, Wilson never fully recovered. Richards observes:

Up until the devaluation crisis in 1967 Wilson had enjoyed an unusually good media, for a Labour leader. After devaluation, most of the newspapers, and parts of the BBC, went for him. Wilson, who was thin-skinned, could not bear the onslaughts. The attacks changed him. The sunny moderniser moved speedily towards becoming the wary old man.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

The trick for headteachers is to recognise that they have a PR battle to manage at all times. For headteachers though, it is split in three distinct ways which makes the task even more challenging:

  • the personal
  • the school / organisation
  • the profession

The personal. Whereas in the past, word of mouth and chitter-chatter may always have happened, there is no denying the phenomena that social platforms such as Twitter now play into. New-age words and phrases – pile on, twitter spat, cancel culture – are part and parcel of what school leaders are now faced with. A great deal of this comes with personal choice. I have made a conscious decision to engage on social media. I have made a conscious decision to blog and put my thoughts and reflections out there for all to see. I do so because I believe the good outweighs the bad – the opportunity to network, exchange views and ideas and learn from others exceeds the potential downsides. And I believe that an online professional presence is a part of the role that deserves to be taken seriously. Although at times the public scrutiny has felt intense. Admittedly this is more so when views and opinion differs from my own – I would humbly suggest that it is always more intense to be involved in challenge and disagreement than universal acceptance and admiration – but at times I have felt (and the perception may be only that: perception, not reality) that there is an expectation I should be available for such scrutiny through social platforms. During C19 lockdowns I was fair game for some, in a way that colleagues not on Twitter wouldn’t have experienced. But, its a choice to participate and I acknowledge that.

I’ve also seen first hand that some leadership colleagues I follow on Twitter have been subject to intense media scrutiny and treated appallingly by the national press as part of their own narrative. One such example of recent times saw a decision made by a school leader ridiculed by a national paper which linked that decision to their personal appearance and what that surely said about their character.

So, like Prime Ministers, school headteachers can find themselves personal figureheads and faces of a decision or point-of-view. Like Prime Ministers in this space, headteachers have to respond and manage the fall-out. A thin-skinned disposition is a poor trait for politicians and school leaders alike.

The school / organisation. News outlets, both at national and local level, engage in an exercise of visiting school websites and social platforms to feed their stories. I once found my school was headline news on local radio because I’d sent a general letter to parents reminding them of the need to ensure their children arrived at school on time. We had a small number – count them on one hand – of families who were arriving slightly late each day. Rather than single these families out, we determined our first action would be a gentle mention of punctuality in a general newsletter at our next opportunity. The way it was reported – and it was hardly newsworthy anyway – portrayed an issue at the school and a sense of crisis. In a small community it was keenly felt.

Of course, there will always be good new and bad news stories, and school leaders have always had to manage that. It is fair to say though that the modern school leader now faces management of comment and opinion, and the views and politics of the media, which are publicly made, often forcibly and sometimes anonymously. Modern era Prime Ministers have always had this, particularly with Question Time type debates and political correspondents giving daily views on news round-ups. But now savvy headteachers are required to be part of this aspect of 21st century life too.

The profession. The final aspect that headteachers need to consider as being under 24 hour scrutiny is that of the profession itself. The C19 pandemic has certainly brightened the light under which we all find ourselves in the teaching sector. Everyone has had an opinion: parents, politicians, policy makers, unions, the public, the press. And obviously everyone is entitled to an opinion and has the right to present it. Many would argue that education has always been a political football subject to ongoing debate and national conversation. But the intensity of that debate and conversation has never been moreso than during the heights of the C19 pandemic. Not all school leaders were ready for that. Some became weary. Others angry. Some quarters of the profession tore themselves to pieces. Some were clear and authoritative voices of reason and inspiration. Like the best Prime Ministers, the most effective school leaders have always been able communicators and testing those skills in unprecedented and unexpected times has now become the new normal for headteachers.

  1. He or she must link values to policies in ways that bind a party and appeal to the wider electorate.

If policies are to work they need to be matched to the idealogical position and indeed the values of the organisation and the community that they serve. For politics, think party and electorate buy-in. For school, think staff ethos and parent satisfaction.

Here the lessons in leadership are easily evident from Tony Blair, lessons which can be traced back to his time as Leader of the Opposition. Steve Richards opines:

Blair’s leadership offers many lessons. Because of all those election defeats, he had a strong sense of what a party – any party – needed to say and do in order to win an election, or at least not lose one.

Blair’s focus on policy detail was forensic at this stage.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Richards makes the wider point that Blair would place less emphasis on personal ideology over that which was right to bind in party and electorate agreement and to ensure a Labour victory at the polls. For headteachers, this is a more awkward space. Headteachers are appointed because of their ideology and are expected to bring it to bear. I feel a personal sense of frustration sometimes when I struggle to see what a particular headteacher stands for. What the strength of their conviction is. Where the passion rests. An easy life of mediocrity does everyone a disservice in my view, especially the pupils. The most successful school leaders, like the most successful Prime Ministers, know what they believe and know how to achieve it.

Before winning his first General Election, Blair would take the time to analyse each and every policy that was part of Labour’s programme. This was to ensure, as he put it, that the policies were “bombproof.

Based on his background as a lawyer, and as an observer of Labour leaders being ill-prepared during elections, [Blair] would ask of himself the questions that he knew the media would pose in the forthcoming campaign. If he had any problem answering them, he would change the policy.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Bombproofing policies and decisions is a leadership quality possessed by effective headteachers, too. The more bombproofed a policy, the braver one can be in pushing forward change, bombproofing each change along the way. For example, in a school this could be a policy area around behaviour management, always a polarising subject matter. Without taking a position on silent corridors, as there are those in favour as there are those against, the effective school leader will focus on the values and beliefs of their school community, and introduce and uphold one that chimes with the needs of that school. Successful school leaders will be mindful and responsive to parent feedback, and will have mechanisms for testing policy before making it so. At my schools we have a parent forum for precisely this reason. Introducing a policy that goes against the grain will almost always lead to failure. That is not to say change cannot be introduced, rather it must be successfully planned for and managed well.

Bombproofing makes a lot of sense, but like in schools, it is not always seen in politics. Both sectors can learn from Blair’s success in this space as much as they can from Theresa May’s deficiencies.

It might be assumed that bombproofing election manifestos is an obvious duty of leadership – in which case, many leaders are not dutiful. As an example, Theresa May got caught out in the 2017 election campaign, having not fully thought through the electoral consequences of her elderly-care proposals. In her manifesto May proposed that elderly care for affluent pensioners should be paid for partly by extracting equity from the value of their homes, a so-called “dementia tax.” The panic in the middle of the Conservatives’ campaign, when the policy was changed, was a failure of leadership.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Schools can get things wrong sometimes, too. For example, I’ve seen “inclusive” schools advocating some policies that are anything but inclusive. Indeed, I’ve been known to make changes and introduce policies in the past which have been out of step with the usual values of the schools I lead. An example would be releasing a scaled down end-of-year report after C19 lockdown 1. Our school prided itself on knowing our pupils inside-out and maintaining a close connection, albeit remote, in lockdown. The decision was made for the right reasons from a staff wellbeing perspective, but on reflection, it was not make-or-break and it didn’t chime with the values and ideologies we espoused. Effective leaders are forgiven in these moments if they come to realise in a timely fashion. For May, it was too late and she lost her Commons majority. For me, I was fortunate to reflect and take steps at my earliest opportunity in the new term to introduce some restorative measures.

Leadership usually doesn’t fail on the back of one or two moments and decisions. It is often because it is sustained and systematic. Policy and decision is key. When Prime Ministers get it wrong time and again, they lose an election. When headteachers get it wrong time and again, they lose the trust and confidence of their community.

I’ve introduced a new structure / hierarchy of meetings in my schools to add clarity to the decision making process. It is my way of “bombproofing” although I’d also posit that my values, principles and experience are part of that formula too.

Read about the structure and heirarchy of meetings here

  1. He or she must show a deep sense of understanding of the wider currents of domestic and foreign policy and a developed sense of political history.

Whereas the Prime Minister will need to have their finger on the pulse of domestic and foreign policy, school leaders will need to be alive to the day-to-day life of their community and the forces at play in the national education conversation. The successful headteacher will recognise the importance of placing themselves and their school at the heart of their community. Declining to take the school choir to the care home, not taking an active role in the village fair, not turning up to the local Church on Remembrance Sunday – all examples of missteps that I know some schools are guilty of. Sometimes the school is represented but the presence of the headteacher is not, and that speaks volumes too. Community is essential for successful schools and the effective headteacher recognises that whilst not detailed on their job description, those additional “ambassadorial” moments are part and parcel of headship. It is successful and strong leadership, and not the kind of thing that can be easily delegated. In an emerging political parallel, as I write this blog, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is facing calls for his resignation over his apparent refusal to take a call with the Afghan Foreign Minister as the Taliban closed in on Kabul. His argument that the call was handled perfectly competently by a junior official simply does not wash with public perception or opinion.

Away from the local (read political “domestic”), school leaders need to be on top of the national conversation in education (the education equivalent of the Prime Ministerial eye on foreign affairs.) Sometimes this is best practice conversation – if schools are still doing Brain Gym at the start of lessons then they are going to be asked some pretty searching questions – and sometimes they are conversations driven from DfE or OFSTED. A recent example would be the OFSTED instigated focus on curriculum or quality of education. I recall, with some sympathy actually, given the education leadership of the time in the Isle of Man, a colleague confessing they had not heard of maths mastery at a time when schools were talking about little else. I’m not suggesting that every school needed to adopt a mastery approach, but the lack of awareness of the wider conversations of the day were always going to lead to interesting interactions with curious parents, and the politicians and policy-makers of the day.

School leaders can learn this lesson in leadership from Prime Ministers. Whereas some were masters of reading the landscape and appearing in tune – none so more than Tony Blair – others were woeful:

[Edward] Heath misread the political rhythms that often determined the fate of his policies. His incomes policy was to be introduced in three phases, a theoretically sensible attempt to impose restraint incrementally. But the policy inevitably triggered rebellions at each stage.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

The lesson, of course, is to avoid the pitfalls of Heath, a Prime Minister judged by history as a failure, certainly in terms of how his time in power ended. An in-tune school leader will be obsessive about the “mood“; on the playground, the mood amongst parents, the mood of the national conversation around whatever policy or initiative is the subject of analysis. They will be reading the rhythms and judging the space they have in which to move. To pass this test of leadership fully, effective headteachers won’t operate alone. They’ll have eyes and ears everywhere to help build a comprehensive picture. It links naturally to the next element of the person specification criteria:

  1. He or she must read the political rhythms in order to assess correctly the space available to act as Prime Minister.

Leaders must also know how much space they have in which to act, on what is always a crowded political stage. This is an overlooked qualification for leadership, but an essential one.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Richards’ central argument here is that successful Prime Ministers recognise that sometimes they can make change or introduce policy, and sometimes they can’t. It is all dependent on a range of factors which Richards labels the “rhythms of politics.” By this he refers to the underlying trends of the day, the mood of the public, the feeling of the party, the strength of the Government and Cabinet, the position of the Opposition. Being able to know when to act is extremely powerful – too much mistimed manoeuvring leads to failure. The best comics are said to have an instinctive gift for timing; so too do the best politicians and Prime Ministers.

Wilson, Major, Brown, Cameron and May led with virtually no room to move at all. After 1997, Blair has more room than he dared to realise. Until the end, Thatcher was astute in recognising just how much room she had – cautious at first, bold after the schism in the Labour Party that led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Wilson was a brilliant operator, given the ridiculously cluttered political stage that he faced for much of his leadership. Cameron created space by forming a coalition, which he managed with considerable skill. May had more space than she realised when she first became Prime Minister, and then none at all when she called an early election in May 2017 and lost her party’s majority. To his surprise, Brown had space during his early honeymoon as Prime Minister – space he made the most of until he became distracted by the temptation to hold an election. After that he was doomed.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

It is possible to reflect back on the then Prime Ministers and, with the benefit of hindsight, draw judgements about how much space they had and how effective each was in recognising this. Richards argues that the reading of the space available is an essential qualification for leadership. It certainly appears true for Prime Ministers. I would suggest the same applies to headteachers too, though I know from experience that I have got better at this over time. As with so much in Richards’ list of criteria for leadership, headteachers have greater opportunity to grow into some of the skills whereas Prime Ministers are expected to be “oven ready” as Boris Johnson might say.

My first year of headship had been relatively smooth. I led a small school and if one judges public mood from the amount of parental contact, the quiet phones and low traffic email suggested a general level of satisfaction to me. I am now better at drawing a distinction between apathy and satisfaction as both imposters hide in the same skin. Thinking that I had created the space to introduce a change to the traditional sports day format was a harsh lesson in misreading the moment. I acted in haste and without proper consultation, and although it appeared an uncontroversial decision, announcing that we were moving the sports day to a different venue, it went down like a led balloon.

Suddenly those quiet phones started to ring, and emails, letters and appointment requests from concerned parents started appearing in my diary.

I felt settled, almost a year into the job. But I was still very much the newcomer and I hadn’t read the values and importance that the community attached to tradition. I believe that it is possible to move the venue of a Sports Day, but the execution required far better explanation (as explored earlier in this blog) and far better timing. I attempted to do so when the circumstances were not right and failure was therefore assured.

Similarly, it is important for the successful headteacher to judge the moment the space is right for changes which affect staff. Introducing a new initiative in the middle of the Christmas season will bring as much ill feeling as it does a lack of success.

The most effective school leaders are in-tune with the rhythms of the academic year, and are in-tune with the current climate both at school level and then in a wider sense. Like Prime Ministers, headteachers can be successful leaders by holding off from introducing, implementing or managing change and maintaining a steady ship. Resisting the urge to act until the seas allow is a trait of the successful leader.

  1. Highly desirable: experience of government before seeking to lead one.

Richards’ final criterion for leadership is the only one qualified by the phrase “highly desirable.” Here, Richards argues that Prime Ministers are better equipped for the demands of the role if they have previous experience of working in Government, particularly in Cabinet and ministerial positions.

Richards note that it is not essential, and even goes as far as to suggest that “perversely, not having any previous experience can be an overwhelming advantage” citing Donald Trump in the US becoming the most powerful elected leader in the world by proclaiming his lack of experience in politics as a strength, and in the UK Tony Blair and David Cameron assumed power with no previous ministerial experience.

Yet it should be a statement of the obvious that having served as a Cabinet minister, observing and working closely with a Prime Minister, must be a significant advantage for a candidate seeking to be a leader and to rule from Number Ten.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

Much here can be easily easily translated into headship. I held four deputy headships before making the leap into headship, and before that had served on two senior leadership teams in different schools. Undoubtedly that experience stood me in good stead, but even then didn’t fully prepare me for the realties of a role requiring vastly different levels of accountability, decision-making and leadership skills.

So, the previous experience helped, but was not completely sufficient. Without it, I dread to think what kind of failures I would now be responsible for. There is a move in education towards a different model of leadership – CEOs of trusts and academies wield large power and influence in leadership positions but do not necessarily come from a background of education-sector experience. The assumption that this can be done is made too easily. There are echoes of this in politics, too.

Heath had assumed, like Gordon Brown, that leading a Government was a small leap fro being a cabinet minister.

Th gulf between the two is gaping.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

In addition to these observations, I offer my own deeply held view. I worked very hard to become a teacher. Entering the profession was difficult; registering for a course at University required of an 18 year old Max to be able demonstrate a work experience in schools and settings for young people (meaning that long before applying, I had sought out a voluntary position at the Isle of Man Chidlren’s Centre to gain the necessary experience); then to undergo a four-year undergraduate degree (B.Ed); obtain the professional qualification required to teach (QTS); and then complete a one year induction process. Subsequently I have acquired further professional qualifications and hold a Masters degree in Educational Leadership.

My point is that the bar has always been high, and rightly so. In recent times, I have seen a lowering of that bar to the point now where it is entirely possible for school leaders to have by-passed all of that relevant experience and qualification. I worry about that.

Similarly, the recruitment issues faced in the education sector have solutions proposed which are often “cheap” short-termism. Earlier this blog I reflected on recent appointments to headship, some of whom have not even held a prior deputy headship. Proper investment and proper succession planning takes time and money, but without it the leadership hole will continue to grow.

Like in headship and school leadership, Richards reflects on what he dubs “a leadership crisis” in UK politics.

There are several reasons why the weightiness of actual or potential leaders has declined, at least in the UK parliament.

Probably some big figures are deterred by the level of scrutiny in modern politics, preferring better paid jobs in the City, the legal profession or the media. From Edward Heath to Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, the wartime generation ached to go into politics and to stay in politics, even when they were no longer in government.

Perhaps some are also deterred by the constraints of power. An owner of a big business will have more power than some ministers.

Prime Ministers can wield considerable power, but they must keep a party on-board, win elections with majorities, or face a nightmare in a hung parliament; respond to a relentless around-the-clock media and social media; and, accept that some powers are now developed to other elected bodies or quangos.

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers”, Atlantic Books, London

The parallels here between the challenges of the job faced by Prime Ministers and headteachers is striking. One can easily see why it often said about both jobs “who would want it?” Thank goodness there are some that do. Experience helps in both cases, but for headteachers better work-life balance, reward, and wellbeing is the longer-term and politically more challenging solution. Trade unions have and continue to make their arguments in this space.


In some ways, much of what I’ve said here amounts to no more than pub-talk absurdity. Running a country is vastly different to running a school. I do recognise that. My analysis and comparison has been on the qualifications for leader – and there are marked similarities even if the scale of the job and the task at hand is remarkably different.

Outside of Richard’s list of criteria for leadership, he notes that “vanity and ego play their part in the characters of modern prime ministers. This is unsurprising. Who could not be flattered by the attention.. in all cases there was also a sense of public duty and conviction.” This, again, appears to be reflected in headship. A few brief moments spent on #EduTwitter will show you some big personalities with over-inflated egos, but almost always they are underpinned with a sense of moral purpose.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it is right or sensible to pitch it as a battle between Prime Ministers and headteachers as for who makes the best leaders. The truth is, of course, the roles are too different, though the criteria for success, and for failure, in both sectors is curiously similar.

Is this a sign that the qualifications for leadership are simply universally applicable, or are these particular qualities particular to these roles? Are there any criteria for headteachers which are unique to that role which you feel could be added to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this by adding a comment in the space below.

One final thought, Richards concludes his book with the line “prime ministers struggle with what they soon discover to be the wretched powerlessness of power.” I’m not convinced that this is true of headship – headteachers can and do have considerable influence over their schools and communities and do have considerable opportunity to make real change on behalf of their students and pupils. It is not a position of wretched powerlessness. Or is it? Let me know what you think in the comment space below.

Thank you for reading – please remember to subscribe to the Manx Max blog for many more articles on all things connected to school leadership.


Ferguson, Alex (2015) “Leading“, Hodder and Stoughton, London

Richards, Steve (2020) “The Prime Ministers“, Atlantic Books, London


  1. Hi Max, thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking read.

    ‘…headteachers can and do have considerable influence over their schools and communities and do have considerable opportunity to make real change on behalf of their students and pupils. It is not a position of wretched powerlessness. Or is it?’

    I believe this to be true, it is not a position of wretched powerlessness if you have the background experience upon which to start. As you suggest in your text, not all newly appointed headteachers have the range and breadth of experience to fully support the demands of their job. For some, time served in a single, or a couple of schools does not equate to the broad and balanced understanding that a candidate with a wider background such as your own can offer. For others, an inability, for whatever reason, to de-center and see anything other than their own agenda provides a block to progress and inability to achieve congruence with the stakeholders of their establishment.

    It is a multifaceted job as you have so well suggested in your paper but another element that needs to be considered is the individual’s EQ and ability to empathise. Being able to walk in another’s shoes is so important and, whilst certainly, the position can be isolating, if there is congruence between stakeholders then that isolation may be more easily managed and the whole school empowered. A key element in achieving this is the ability of the leader to actively listen.

    The development, and sustaining, of barriers to progress, can be seen in schools and systems where there is a ‘top-down’ management style that fails to listen effectively. This is not to say that even in a top-down system the overall objective cannot be achieved, but the power to drive and influence schools and their communities sits on a continuum of:

    high EQ teamwork ———————————————- low EQ authoritative dictatorship

    The latter does not make for a happy and thriving school, whereas the former builds sustainable and lasting change built on mutual respect and more easily avoids the alienation of stakeholders.

    Whilst completing my Masters in1995 I challenged the role of the training establishments over their lack of screening to establish the psychological suitability of potential teacher trainees and was verbally chastised for even suggesting it was needed. Here we are 26 years later…are there shortfalls in leadership EQ coming home to roost in some parts of our education systems? I don’t know. What do you think?


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