by Diane Browne

The Coronavirus experience has taught us many things, not least of which is the importance of strong leadership. Countries that have struggled with controlling the virus successfully have been linked with a lack of clear, purposeful and, crucially, consistent direction from their governments, and a perception has emerged that those who responded most effectively to the crisis happen to have been led by women.

There is increasing focus on women in leadership roles. Whilst women are protected from discrimination by increasingly robust legislation, it remains true that the ‘top’ jobs in our society are still dominated by men. Girls are given equal opportunities in education (and a good inspection will make sure that is indeed the case in any school) yet still there are fewer women in the most powerful leadership positions than there should be. So, if it’s not qualifications making the difference, then it must be character and attitude forming barriers, sometimes of women themselves, who might doubt their capacity to lead in the top roles.

As an all-girls school, at Adcote we feel this imbalance keenly and believe that we have a responsibility to train girls so that they are enabled to take the highest jobs, not just through their qualifications but also through the content of their character. That’s why effective Leadership is taught as part of our CLEAR Learning programme.

In teaching leadership, we start by telling girls one essential truth: leadership is a learned skill. Despite the familiar phrase, in fact no one is a “born leader”. Some people might, by nature, be more assertive or more competitive but these elements alone do not make them a successful leader. As the Head of Adcote School I lead the staff, the students and the business but my nature inclines towards shyness and modesty, qualities not readily associated with leadership. However, as Adcote has just been named as ISA’s Senior School of the Year, evidence would seem to indicate that I am a good leader even without an inclination towards bossiness (and for the record, the modesty part of me has just blushed in writing that). So, we tell our students that there isn’t one “type” of person to be an effective leader but there are key elements of good leadership that can be acquired.

No one goes straight in at the top in their careers, everyone makes a journey to leadership. It’s what you do on that journey that counts. Good leaders evolve. On their way to the top, they will have watched those who led them before they reached their own positions of responsibility, especially those who made them feel good about themselves, increasing their confidence, resolving to mirror that style when they are leaders themselves. They will also have observed poor leaders, determining not to repeat that approach themselves.

In my own leadership as a head, I have drawn heavily on my experience of those who led me on my journey to the post, striving always to use strategies that made me feel valued and effective. However, I have always tried to be “me”. Emulate those you admire, but always be true to yourself. Pretending to be someone you are not on a daily basis is utterly exhausting and no matter how good an actor you think you are, you will be caught out, and you might lose the respect, and therefore the confidence of those you are leading when you do. Leadership techniques are different from personality traits and understanding that difference is a good first step on the road to being a strong leader.

Embrace your personality. If you have characteristics that you think might be weaknesses, re-evaluate them and see how they can contribute to a good leadership style. I thought being slightly reserved might prevent me from assuming a leadership role, but then I realised that being a little shy made me a good listener which is, in fact, a skill that is at the heart of good leadership. Are you rash and impetuous? Good, that will keep the pace of the project going. Are you cautions and wary? Good, that will mean the project is well thought out and risk is controlled.

The key is to build a team around you whose qualities complement your own personality. If you are rash, you need someone who is cautious by nature to counterbalance you. If you are wary, you need someone more impetuous to drive the project along.

As a strong leader, you must have clarity of purpose and vision regarding targets that need to be achieved but don’t assume you have all the answers as to how to achieve them. Success is almost always a group effort, so once you have established that team, consult with them, and really listen to them.

Effective leadership is about getting a good job done for the benefit of others (obviously this is especially true in education!).  If success in leadership is solely about your own ego, that’s not good. Therefore, if you’re going to have an attitude that it’s your way or no way, that’s not going to make you an effective leader. Instead, listen to the views and advice of those around you. Be prepared to admit when you don’t have a solution to a problem. That admission of being human will earn you respect (unless you say it too often when people will begin to question if you have the skills and experience for the post you hold).

Create a team who will advise you soundly. Be prepared to accept what they say and amend your own plan accordingly, always being prepared to bow to a better idea once you recognise that that is the case.  Equally, however, be prepared to reject recommendations given if your own instinct directs you to. Providing you don’t reject everything they say, they will recognise that you are drawing on your experience and they will accept your decision, but never reject ideas with brutal language. Be kind and respect the fact that members of your team are on their own paths to leadership so might make inexperience judgements. Be professional and do not bruise their confidence otherwise they won’t advise you honestly next time. The last thing you want as a leader is a team of people who are too scared to voice their opinion in case they are put down and will therefore just tell you what they think you want to hear.

The most successful leadership technique you can use is to empower people, and not just members of the leadership team. Trust them, value them, and in taking this approach, you will find that people will not disappoint you. I have found that in being given a responsibility that is appropriate to their experience, people flourish as they relish the challenge and understand the compliment that is being paid to them. Their enthusiasm and confidence soar and that is to everyone’s benefit.

Of course, you will have to monitor them as they proceed, but they won’t mind that as they will want to show you what a good job they are doing (unless you micromanage them in which case, they will perceive that you don’t trust them).

And when the job is done, and it’s excellent, be generous in your praise and never, ever steal their thunder. It does not need to be stated that your leadership style enabled them to achieve their accomplishments, but everyone will know that’s the truth, and that should be good enough for you.

Although we must not stereotype, many women are natural pleasers, good organisers but prone to self-doubt, elements that have been cited as potential barriers to attaining top leadership roles. I would contradict this assertion, however, and instead point out what powerful, positive traits in leadership these qualities can be. How so? Surely effective leadership is all about pleasing? A successful job pleases everyone and wanting to achieve that can be an effective spur to doing a great job. Organisation speaks for itself. No successful outcome came from “let’s see how it goes”; all projects require planning and strategic thinking. As for self-doubt, a healthy dose of uncertainty makes you guarded, and being cautious makes you double check all detail so that the road to a finished job is paved with care and attention making a watertight plan that is bound to succeed.

So, to all women on their career journeys, remember that good leadership is not about being a remarkable person, it’s about doing a remarkable job. The two are very different and understanding that will boost your confidence and lead you to do great things.