I was recently invited to join a conference panel discussing how to have impact at any level as a leader. It got me thinking about successful leadership behaviours. I concluded there are four that together add up to epic leadership.
Epic leaders are empowering, (moral) purposeful, impactful and compassionate.
Epic wasn’t a word I used much until my home became dominated by the superheroes and accompanying jargon my husband and children are obsessed with. It seems a good fit for the notion that successful school leaders have a touch of the superheroic about them. But you don’t need special powers to be an epic leader; just four qualities anyone can develop.
Epic leaders don’t rely on personal performance, but inspire and enable others to deliver. This can be particularly tricky for middle leaders, who are often ‘pace-setters’, leading by example and urging others to keep up. It certainly can be difficult to let go, especially when you know (or think you do) that you can do something better yourself. Yet, while pace-setting can be an effective way to get things done in the short term, it can quickly lead to burn-out for you and demoralisation for staff.
Far better is giving staff genuine responsibility (for outcomes not tasks), and offering them the tools to succeed for themselves. Setting a clear vision and expectations, backed up with practical and moral support is key. Coaching can help staff find their own solutions and approaches, while metoring is useful when they’re stuck. You also need to create an environment where it is safe to try things out and sometimes fail – as we tell our students, this is an important way to learn.
OK, I had to cheat and put the moral in brackets for epic to work, but think of those parentheses as adding emphasis, not diminishing it. To continue the superhero theme, with great power comes great responsibility. What you do with the power you have as a school leader really matters. Having a strong moral compass and set of values around securing the best outcomes for all children – while supporting the growth and wellbeing of the adults you lead – should determine the direction of your leadership. Consistently living those values in everything you do is crucial. People will be watching; it’s not good enough to expect people to do as you say if it’s not as you do.
Epic leaders have a positive and lasting impact on those around them, be they adults or children. Of course, the difference we make to the young lives in our care is our most important task as school leaders. It should extend beyond academic success to a genuine flourishing in all aspects of development, including the personal, social, moral and cultural. All our leadership endeavours – from the development of our staff to our use of financial resources – should be directed at securing this impact.
But we need to exercise care that the mantra of “doing whatever takes” doesn’t come at the expense of staff wellbeing, or indeed our own. We all work hard; what we need is to work smarter, innovating and experimenting to secure the biggest gains for the least effort. We cannot successfully nurture our pupils if we do not also nurture and nourish ourselves and the teachers and other adults around them.
The most epic leaders have impact beyond their own organisation, whether that’s a school, teaching school alliance or multi-academy trust. They share their expertise and enthusiasm as true leaders of the system, striving to make it better for everyone in it. System leaders can be found at every level, making an impact through exercising “soft” power and influence (shaping the agenda and promoting learning and development through blogs and conferences, for example), as well as taking on formal responsibilities.
Last, but certainly not least, epic leaders are compassionate – both to others and themselves. Compassion has been much underestimated in traditional models of “strong leadership”, but there is great strength in taking the time to know, understand and empathise with staff and colleagues and in treating them with compassion and respect. It is the right thing to do. It can also inspire commitment and loyalty that will result in a willingness to ‘go the extra mile’.
Compassion is a courtsey you should also extend to yourself. You are likely to be your harshest critic. If this is the case, ask yourself what you would say to a friend who was saying the things you say to and about yourself. Make your self-talk a more positive reflection of the person and leader you really are.
Epic, not infallible
Being an epic leader doesn’t mean getting it right all the time. Development and the achievement of success is not a linear process; it is very messy. Epic leaders acknoledge this, admit when they’re wrong, learn from it and move on. They also create a culture that ensures others can do the same.
Epic and authentic
Like superheroes, epic leaders come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t don a cape, they simply strive to become the very best version of themselves.
If you’re looking to develop an approach to epic leadership that’s as unique and authentic as you are, sign up by Friday 20 October for one of our four leadership development programmes:
- NPQML – for aspiring and serving middle leaders
- NPQSL – for aspiring and serving sesnior leaders
- Leading with Confidence – for women on their journey to headship
- Leadership Beyond One School – for serving female heads and executive leaders wanting to make an impact beyond one school