When I first became a Headteacher (or for American readers, a Principal), 14 years ago, I thought that I had a clear grasp of the requirements, skills and duties of Headship. In the British education system, headteachers lead and manage the curriculum, school standards, including achievement and progress, the budget, the quality of learning and provision, staffing, pupil welfare, safeguarding, community cohesion, to name just a few things. When the National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers came out in January 2015, I prided myself on being able to tick most of the boxes.
To anyone now wishing to apply for their first Headship position, I would say that being a Headteacher is about much more than box ticking, skills and duties. It is overwhelmingly concerned with problem-solving, managing relationships, resolving conflicts and dilemmas, making ethical and philosophical decisions and, more than ever, it is about the management of oneself. Before we can hope to lead others and influence others, we need to work on ourselves.
This perspective piece uses Stoic philosophy (not to be confused with the simplistic stiff upper lip definition of stoicism) as a useful leadership tool to use in, what are becoming, ever more uncertain times. I have used some of the key aspects of Stoic Philosophy, practised by key ancient thinkers like Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and applied them to my own thinking about leadership.
I hasten to add that you do not have to subscribe to the views of these ancient bearded philosophers to acknowledge that they may have some powerful insights that can help us develop our school leadership qualities and behaviour.
As leaders, worry only about the things under your control.
It is not what happens to you that matters, but how you react.Epictetus
The angry outburst of a child at your office door, the frustrated parent at the school gate, the R-rate in the community, the contradictory messages from the government about school opening- all these are essentially beyond your control. Returning to this control question can help you gain perspective and develop self-awareness. Headteachers are notoriously ambitious and strive for successes which are sometimes unachievable.
For years, I struggled with anxiety over some of the children who were only achieving 91% school attendance until my perspective changed. I suddenly realized that the attendance of these key children, many from vulnerable families, could be perceived quite differently. In fact, 91% was a remarkable achievement. Considering the challenges these families faced, attendance could well have been only 50%. This is one small example of when it is the stories we tell ourselves and our perspectives that really matter.
The practical implication here for leaders, is to develop the right mindset. This requires time, experience, professional conversations with others, emotional insight and empathy.
Leaders Need Mental Fortitude
There are clearly many things, as leaders, over which we have only partial control and influence, but for Stoics, it is our perceptions and perspective that are fundamental. As Headteachers, much of our working lives are immersed in relationships and interactions with staff, children and parents. These exchanges and interactions often involve conflicts, negotiations and, sometimes, challenges. These all have emotional consequences. Mental fortitude is an essential character trait for all Headteachers. Stoicism does not encourage us, as leaders, to be unemotional but to be mentally and psychologically prepared. For Stoics, good leadership means the use of good judgement, not acting rashly and ensuring that your emotions fall in line with your values.
The practical implication here for leaders, is to develop an understanding of conflict resolution and strategies and techniques for solving problems, training in critical thinking and emotional intelligence.
Leaders Need To Be Values Driven.
For Stoics, leaders need to be driven by values which they called virtues. For the Stoics, these were the virtues of Reason, Courage, Temperance (self–control) and Justice. As Headteachers, we are constantly blown off course and distracted by circumstantial and management issues, but it is really our core values, our vision and our goals that matter most. We need to lead through and exemplify our values, to act as a role model for others and to learn from other role models.
One view of a successful Headteacher, is someone who is decisive, proactive and purposeful. These are all good qualities. However, my view is that Headteachers also need to be philosophical and make considered decisions based on reflection, introspection, and their deeply-held values. This may take time and deliberation.
Successful Headship requires the courage to make challenging decisions, the ability to remain calm under pressure and a commitment to justice and fairness to ensure staff and pupils’ rights, responsibilities, and opportunities are upheld and provided. Headteachers need to be reflective thinkers, to reason through and evaluate decisions and actions. Stoics like Marcus Aurelius are famous for writing journals.
In the Meditations Marcus would reflect on and evaluate his day on a habitual basis. What went well today? What could I improve? What did I learn? In a May 2020 article published in IMPACT, Lucy Kelly quotes evidential findings from the Teaching Wellbeing Index that diary writing has proved to be a positive tool which aids reflection and wellbeing.
The practical implication here for leaders is to develop an honest, personal evaluation of their role. We do not have to write journals at the end of each day but there are many useful tools that can help us guide our thinking. The Edward De Bono thinking programme including the Six Thinking Hats is one such programme that continues to be used as an effective leadership tool. There are many others.
Leaders Should Embrace Uncertainty.
Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty. For Stoics, life is rooted in uncertainty and unpredictability. We should not be surprised by events, problems or misfortunes. Leaders need to be prepared, flexible and adaptable and anticipate challenges. Before embarking on a new project, an INSET day, an EHCP meeting, leaders should prepare themselves by asking themselves: What could go wrong here? What problems or challenges might there be?
This is not a strategy of low expectation, but rather one that seeks to prepare and anticipate ‘emotionally’ before embarking on changes. When we embark on our three-year School Development plans, we need to remind ourselves to build flexibility into these plans. We will need to adapt, improvise, and constantly review our plans, because everything changes all the time.
The practical implication for leaders here is the need for developing strategies for change management, the ability to adapt, as well as the courage to decide what to dump, ditch or delegate.
Leaders Need to Learn to Appreciate
For the Stoics, appreciation is fundamental. It is important to appreciate what we have in our personal lives as well as our working lives. As leaders, it is useful to remind ourselves of the things we appreciate about our schools, pupils and colleagues, our community, achievements and developments that we have contributed to and are part of. Stoics emphasise the central role of gratitude. We need be thankful for what we have personally, and show gratitude to those who have helped us. We need to learn to appreciate ourselves and make time and space for ourselves to reflect and evaluate our leadership roles.
The practical implication here is that leaders should develop school cultures that are underpinned by transparency, opportunities for feedback and coaching. Staff and pupils are appreciated, and their talents fostered.
Leaders Need Patience
The world is changing constantly, and patience is invaluable. There will be people (staff, children, governors, parents) who will test your tolerance and patience as leaders. It is an important quality to remain calm and positive and be resilient. Empathetic skills, communication skills and perspective can help navigate day-to-day interactions with people.
The practical implication here is that leaders should model patience and tolerance, and embed these qualities in school culture, codes of conduct and school values.
Leaders Look For Teachable Moments
For Stoics, great leaders take ordinary, complex or difficult situations and turn them into something. Leaders turn obstacles into leadership opportunities for others. It is what they mean when they say the obstacle is the way. Where there are obstacles, problems and difficulties, it is important to look for learning solutions. Itis not so much about resigning yourself to situations, but making the best of them, not avoiding problems but embracing challenges and learning from them. We are very good at encouraging pupils to do this but perhaps more reluctant to do this as leaders.
The practical implication here is that leaders should look for opportunities to learn from experiences and difficulties. It requires leaders to step back and look at things differently, be analytical, share problems with colleagues and approach leadership with an outlook of enquiry. We all need to be part of a ‘learning community’.
Ego Is The Enemy
As leaders, we will not be capable of taking or receiving feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from others. Without an accurate understanding of ourselves, our strengths, capabilities and weaknesses, we will be unable to reach, motivate or lead others.
This is why all Headteachers can really benefit from good quality coaching. The expectations of Headteachers today can sometimes seem unachievable. After 14 years of Headship, it sometimes seems to me, that to be a successful Headteacher is to be superhuman! We need to remember that humility and self-awareness are where true strength lies. For Stoics, even when we receive praise, we are not everything. We are ordinary. We are simply doing our job to the best of our ability.
The practical implication here is that leaders should seek to learn from others, seek feedback, embrace appraisal, pursue professional development and read widely. Most of all, of course, we need to try to be authentic and true to our values.
Jim Mepham been a Primary School Headteacher in Bristol, UK for 12 years and has over 30 years experience in education. He has a keen interest in the Philosophy of Education, Stoicism and Ethical leadership.