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Why we need Authentic School Leaders

Viv Grant
15 Dec 2022
4 mins read
Why we need Authentic School Leaders

This article is written by Viv Grant. Viv is a former primary Headteacher and was one of the youngest heads in the country to turn around a failing primary school. She uses her twenty-five years of education experience as an Executive Coach, Author and Public Speaker. She is the Director of Integrity Coaching, London’s leading provider of coaching services for headteachers and senior school leaders.

There’s plenty of advice out there about what makes a great leader, from textbooks, certifications and seminars. Often the advice focuses around what leaders should do, how they should behave and highlighting what are deemed to be outstanding leadership examples.

However, the more I’ve worked with leaders in schools – the more it has become apparent that there is no one-size fits all model of leadership.

What’s more, I’ve since learned that, as Parker J Palmer has said, great leadership ‘cannot be reduced to a matter of technique or style’. Rather, it comes from the very identity and integrity of every individual who has chosen to take on the mantle of leadership.

As such, rather than the system trying to mould individuals into the leaders it thinks they should be, I believe we should be inspiring them to lead authentically. We need leaders who are able to lead from the very heart of who they are; through ways which tap into their own unique gifts, their values and their own internal sense of purpose.

Yet as many school leaders often find being authentic isn’t easy, as it involves "choosing being real over being liked” (Brené Brown) and putting your True Self (warts and all) out to the world.

Admittedly, there’s is a risk to showing up in this way, but there’s also a lot to gain. When we show up as our True Selves we:

  • Build Trust
  • Foster greater self -belief
  • Facilitate better communication
  • Cultivate genuine human connection

Everyone benefits and our children develop a deeper sense of what it means to be human and well in the world. Working with School Leaders, I’ve also witnessed first-hand the impact authenticity has on the way in which individuals stay connected to their sense of vocation and purpose. Here’s why:

Leaders are more able to make wise decisions

Most leaders are capable of wise decision making. However, the combination of unstable internal and external environments, often works against this happening as frequently as it should.

Instead, leaders are often forced to be reactive in their decision making; time, events, their own thoughts and emotions do not stand still for long enough to enable them to access deeper, higher levels of thought and reason that lead to wise decision making.

Most learn to live with it, an unfortunate, but accepted consequence of the role. However, living with it does not make it any easier to bear. Most want to inhabit the role differently, most want to know how to better manage their responses to the rapid succession of events that are hurled at them virtually each and every day.

For those who’ve developed an authentic practice, i.e. a practice that allows them to be more mindful and listen to themselves, decision-making becomes easier. These leaders know how to make decisions that are consistently in line with their values. Those who have yet to develop such a practice, tend to be pushed into choices that compromise their principles and sadly, often live with a diminished sense of agency, connection and purpose.

Leaders create environments built on trust

When leaders are authentic, they not only trust themselves more, but they also learn how to build deeper and more trusting relationships with others.

You may have noticed this yourself; leaders who are comfortable in their own skins, make it easy for others to trust them and feel comfortable in their presence. Whereas with leaders for whom the opposite is true, relationships are often tenuous and can be a reflection of the leaders’ own inner state.

When staff and teachers are able to see a person that they can relate to, who is consistent in their behaviours and the application of their values, trust becomes part of the glue that brings a greater degree of cohesiveness to relationships.

What’s more, inspired by the example, staff also learn what it truly means to live by ones’ values. Staff understand that there is challenge and there is risk in really living up to one’s values, but they also come to see that the risk is well worth the effort.

Leaders are more likely to be resilient and stay motivated

It is hard to lead with authenticity and purpose when there is a lack of resonance between your own personal/professional endeavours and your own internal ‘Why.’

When leaders are supported to stay connected to a deep internal sense of purpose, motivation and resilience remains high, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Replace that drive with an external, punitive outside source and the impact is usually the opposite.

We need only look at the continued high rates of attrition from the profession and talk to colleagues who have left, to know that this is true.

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