I have been a teacher of English for 24 years, a Headteacher for 9 years and, at the age of 48, this much I know about developing leadership and shaping the SLT.
The days of having to time-serve before gaining a leadership post in schools are well gone; if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. I was fortunate to be given the chance to lead even when I was hardly ready; I owe John Morris, Peter Bratton, Chris Bridge, Norma Taylor and Jonathan Leach for appointing me when I was far from the finished article! Nepotism aside, Elizabeth Murdoch ran BskyB when she was 29 years old.
Growing young leaders is one of the Headteacher’s main priorities. My leadership-talent radar is always on, mainly because it has to be; in ten years of headship, promotions and retirements have meant I have never had the same team two years in a row!
Maintaining the core ethos is key to sustaining your team’s effectiveness. It is crucial to be clear in your expectations of SLT colleagues; be utterly explicit and challenge when your expectations are not met.  Whilst personnel may change the core ethos has to remain intact.
Good leaders attract followers but great leaders create leaders. I know I’m a Michael Fullan bore, but he does get it when he says, An organization cannot flourish – at least, not for long – on the actions of the top leader alone. Schools and districts need many leaders at many levels. Learning in context helps produce such leaders. Further, for leaders to be able to deal with complex problems, they need many years of experience and professional development on the job. To a certain extent, a school leader’s effectiveness in creating a culture of sustained change will be determined by the leaders he or she leaves behind.
We believe in the limitless potential of all people, not just students. The responsibility of leadership isn’t for everyone, however; you have to be understanding when younger colleagues don’t want the increased responsibility of leadership which you would have found attractive at their age. A high level of sensitivity is important.
Avoid the unintended development of the long-serving Senior Leader who ends up in the SLT without a clear role. It’s costly and generally morale-sapping for the institution. If you have an Assistant or Deputy Headteacher responsible for school transport, STOP IT!


Distributing leadership means distributing responsibility and accountability; anything else is just delegating tasks. You have to be comfortable about the genuine distribution of leadership. Alma Harris is good on this when she says, It was the strongest leaders most comfortable in their own skins who were eventually most able to let go of power, thus allowing for the decisions of others. They were more likely to distribute than merely to delegate and still less likely to micromanage others’ every action so as to deliver someone else’s agenda.
Take risks when you develop young leaders – give them a chance but know how far you can allow them to fall.

toe over the cliff

If you have a Junior Leadership Team give them a purpose that is real and matters. This year we appointed a JLT; we asked them to research into student motivation and to make proposals for improving student motivation for our forthcoming 2013-2016 School Development Plan. They have been breath-takingly good; our new SDP will have only two Development Strands, one of which they will have shaped and be responsible for implementing.
If you have a Junior Leadership Team, invest in the team’s development. We managed to persuade Zoe Elder @fullonlearning to coach our JLT. Her input has been expert, developmental and inspirational; I choose those words very deliberately.
Simplicity, clarity, brevity: Evaluate! Our JLT is at the point where they need to shape up their proposals into a formal development plan and the best advice is to keep things simple, be utterly clear about what the outcomes of their proposals will look like and keep everything brief; they must focus with clarity upon the golden thread from action to impact on student outcomes. Then, the vital thing, and the thing I don’t think we do very well in schools generally, is for them to agree how they will evaluate the success of the strategies they implement.


Simplicity does not mean simplistic; as Fullan says, Never a tick box, always complexity. The JLT need to be guided by Kluger’s notion of simplexity; Kluger says that we have to make what we do simple to understand, and then spend time upon the complex task of taking people with us – effective change is simple to describe but complex to implement.
When appointing, beware the Halo Effect. Dion and Berscheid (1972) concluded that participants in their research overwhelmingly believed more attractive people have more socially desirable personality traits than either averagely attractive or unattractive people. The participants also believed that attractive individuals would…have more career success than the others. Take a check – how good-looking is your SLT?!


Don’t be afraid of appointing greatness. This sounds silly, but some Headteachers can be threatened by the Deputy who’s truly great. I love working with talented people and, anyway, it’s not my ideas I’m after, it’s the best ideas.
We have all felt the Imposter Syndrome at one point or another. Vic Goddard and I chatted about it at length recently. But over the years I have stopped asking, Why me? and instead I’ve began asking, Why not me? Someone’s got to take responsibility and what’s the worst thing that can happen? Really?

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This post has 20 Comments

  1. Very interesting article. This year I’m an RQT. My head advised me that the slt development role for literacy was intended for someone with some faculty responsibility already – after getting an interview I proved myself to be the best candidate and was subsequently offered the role and I’m loving it 🙂

  2. Another ‘truly great’ post, John. I love how you express your commitment to searching out the ‘best ideas’ and your reference to ‘….if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ is so true. I’ve always been guided by the thinking that skill-development is an individual profressional responsibility but experience is usually dependent on others’ (existing leaders) deliberately designing appropriate opportunities. There’s a special delight and privilege in actively creating those opportunities within a culture of growth and development for future leaders, as you have with your JLT. Your words make me wonder if we need to be more explicit about this in all leadership roles, from the outset?
    Thank you for this (and for your very kind words).
    Best wishes, Zoë

  3. I always worry about Head Teachers who want to develop the leadership of the “young” teachers. I have worked in four schools now and I have wittnessed two dangers.
    Giving “young” members of staff a leadership badge can offend and isolate longer severing and/or older members of staff who have been informally leading their peers previously but without recognition. For example a “young” member of staff being highlighted in a staff meeting because they have been observed doing something useful in their classroom and asked to lead a whole school project or inset on the idea, but the original source of what they have done is the slightly grumpy 52 year old head of geography who has been giving informal coaching during coffee break. There needs to be a separation between giving recognition and giving leadership opportunities, but this is often confused. (At least in my career).
    Secondly, sparking mad ambition in the “young” members of staff. In the first school I worked at there was a good connection between the SMT and the staff body. In the second there was none at all and it was demoralising. But in the third everything was about attention-seeking and sucking up to the senior management team. Posts were created, the idea being people would do the jobs SMT didn’t want to do for free and their reward would be a step closer to senior leadership. The SMT members must have thought they were encouraging the next generation of leaders, however they were creating a dangerous culture of innovation at the expense of good practice. More than that though, if you are an NQT one year and aspiring senior leader the next you expect to be able to quickly make the jump. But you don’t and the school ends up with a dozen wannabe SMT members who are dissapointed and they end up working to undermine the current leadership because they feel they have proved that they are more worthy.
    I would link the first and second experinces together as I was entirely frustrated with the second situation: As someone who had taught for 8 years I was was coaching, advising and guiding the “young” teachers who had chosen to take on these aspiring senior leadership roles, but there was obviously no recognition for me as I hadn’t pushed myself forward. I had a clear career path and was not supported through it because I was not prepared to suck up to SMT.
    Having written quite bitter paragraphs, I would end my comments by saying I don’t disagree with your blog post in theory or in practice. I now work in a wonderful school where leadership is distributed. As a staff member if I want to lead something that I see the need for (and the Head agrees) then I can. We have several teachers who on paper have no formal responsibilities, but who are very much involved in supporting the leadership team on a very practical level. We can’t all wear a badge but no one cares about that anyway. If we have ideas, opinions or suggestions we voice them. Following and leading is expected and celebrated in every member of staff from the night security guard to the Head Teacher. The culture of the school is team work. No one ever says anything negative about senior management because no competition between staff exists: it is refreshing!

  4. I enjoyed reading this, John – thanks. I’d also add that when appointing to the SLT, whether externally or internally, heads need to take care to look for those with skills and talents which complement their own/others within the team. We tend naturally to gravitate towards those we find are similar to us, but the best SLTs in my experience work because they are made up of individuals who share a vision but who have quite different temperaments and skill sets. What do others think?

  5. As a youngish (45) executive head I fully go down this line too. I love to grow those who are hungry and driven regardless of time served. Excellent, thank you!

  6. John, as always your blog is right on the mark. in particular the last bit about the Imposter Syndrome, which I have a tendency to suffer from. Thank you for such wonderful writing (I loved the fishing blog too and I don’t even fish!)

  7. I also agree with many of your sentiments about nurturing and developing new leaders. However I too worry about the role that age plays in the decision making process. Like many teachers I chose to combine part time teaching with caring for my children. During this time I continued to focus on the children I taught and my passion for creative pedagogy. I supported the school in any way possible but shied away from formal leadership responsibilities for obvious reasons. However I spent a lot of time supporting others informally, happily under the radar. Now my children are older I have the time, the confidence and plenty of experience which has enabled me to take on a variety of additional roles and to be part of the leadership team in a school I love. I would urge any leader reading your post to be mindful of the fact that leaders develop in different ways on different paths at different stages of life. Value and encourage them all equally.

    1. Just to reassure ‘Happy Teacher’ – during the course of my time in teaching (30 years) I saw the ‘window’ gradually widen with respect to the ages at which teachers (and it tended to be women because of time out they’d chosen to take to raise families) were considered strong candidates for leadership. I think it’s partly because of the raising of the expected retirement age (so at least there’s one good thing about it!) – I now know women getting headships well into their fifties, for example.

  8. I, too, love the comment about Imposter syndrome. I wish we could remove the taboo which says headteachers can’t talk about their vulnerability and the sense that a community expects perfection (which sometimes – very unreasonably – it does). A government and inspection regime which (rightly) pushes for excellence seems to have left us with a culture where many are unable to accept that ‘good enough’ sometimes has to be good enough.

  9. Reblogged this on SELMAS and commented:
    A really interesting post about the responsibilities of leaders to distributive and sustainable leadership. Read the comments too – some interesting perspectives

  10. Thanks for this article – found it a really interesting read, we are going to discuss this at our JLT equivalent meeting this week. You are so right about delegating versus distributing responsibliity! Our JLT team have certainly found that simplicity is key – our projects, though initially frighteningly large in appearance, are moving forwards often through the simplistic approach you describe, rather than through sweeping change.

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