Coaching & Leadership Development

The 3 Secrets of Sustainable School Leadership

The 3 Secrets of Sustainable School Leadership

This Blog comes from an ex-secondary Headteacher, trainee therapist and Integrity Coaching Associate, Tim Small.


Before going any further, I must confess to you that I do not write from the authority of having sustained a long period in headship.  On the contrary, after four years I gave it up in the knowledge that to carry on would not be compatible with my own good health; nor therefore, of course, that of the school.  Please don’t get me wrong.  I was perfectly healthy and very fit, physically.  I had made sure of that.


Emotionally, though, I was becoming drained.  My resilience was lower than was safe.  So, what I have to say is (I hope) wisdom gained partly through my own suffering and healing, partly through observation of some dozens of school leaders with whom I have had the privilege of working.


Secret 1: The Energy Bonfire


It follows, then, that the first ‘secret’ of sustainable school leadership is that, however easy some may make it look, it’s not!  It’s hard.  The ability to sustain effective, inspiring leadership is an art learned and honed by experience, hard graft, incredible dedication and deep reflection.  Most school leaders I know, at least some of the time, feel their whole life has been taken over by the role.


Like a bonfire, this all burns a great deal of energy.  It can be exhausting and, sadly, superheroes with unlimited energy don’t exist!


What can I do?


Keep re-fuelling the energy bonfire!  A wise counsellor once said to me, ‘As long as there is as much coming in as there is going out, there is no limit to what you can achieve.’  Be watchful of your energy levels and your spirits.


Know what depletes them, what replenishes them.  Establish your fuel supply and take responsibility for not burning out!


Secret 2: The Danger of One


The second ‘secret’ of sustainable school leadership is that although you may feel that it all falls on you to lead and improve your school, this cannot be done by one person alone.


It requires alliances, an appreciation of what teamwork really means and adult-to-adult relationships based upon Trust, Affirmation and Challenge.


To focus on one ‘supreme’ leader is both narrowing and reductionist.  If leadership can’t be sustained in the absence of the ‘one’, then it’s likely not to be a sustainable model.


What can I do?


Maintain alliances! The most important and valuable are those based on shared values and goals.  Foster leadership in others and loosen the reins as far as you safely can.


Be prepared to ask for trust, give trust, be worthy of trust and repair trust.  Remember that your professional colleagues have their own professional (and personal) agendas – most of which need honouring.  Secure at least one professional relationship based on independent, non-judging, critical-friendly support for you.


Secret 3: The Suction Power


The third ‘secret’ of sustainable school leadership is that, however much it might look ‘high-up’, as if on a watchtower or mountain-top, it is one with a tremendous, vacuum-like power to ‘suck you in’ until you can’t see out any more.


As a leader, one of the most important things you have is your perspective.  Losing it can feel like being in the dark and unable to breathe. And, importantly, your staff get sucked in too and you are the one they look to for light and air.


Without perspective, it is likely that you’ll soon find yourself overwhelmed and, eventually, unable to carry on.


What can I do? 


Fight the suction! Make footholds and guy-ropes to help you climb back out, easily, and look at the sky.  Get your head above the canopy and survey the whole jungle, regularly: it is a principle responsibility of leadership.


Remind yourself of how much less most of the day-to-day, energy-sapping emergencies matter, compared with what really does!  Model sanity for your staff and encourage them to do the same for those in their care.




This past year has brought many unprecedented challenges for the teaching profession and Headteachers in particular, have had to engage with their role, their staff and their communities in ways that they could never have imagined prior to the events of last year.


For many school leaders there is now an emerging need to:


 – Review their role and find a deeper meaning from what has unfolded

– Renew and revisit their sense of vocation and purpose within the context of the impact of the Pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement

– Reflect on lessons learned from this period and how they might influence their own leadership and the relationship that they have with themselves and others


As important as these needs are, we know all too well, that the spaces to think and reflect deeply on such matters are few and far between. This lack of space can mean that there are very few avenues for exploring and talking in depth about the immense challenges of this past year and also exploring solutions for moving forward.


Our “Developing Headspace” programme has been designed to meet this need. The programme has run successfully for several years and in light of recent events, our September cohort will have a particular focus on restoration and rejuvenation and what this means in the lives of Headteachers.


The programme will provide a reflective space for leaders to renew perspective, think strategically and refresh the vitality of their core purpose. It will also support individual capacity for authentic, inspiring and sustainable leadership, as well as provide on-going care, support and encouragement for leaders across the school year.


If you’d like to find out more about the programme, and how it could help support you in your role, simply follow the link below…


Learn more about the Programme

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