Why Heads Leave – The 3 Key Reasons


“When we are doing what is wrong for us, we can temporarily mobilise energy in service to goals, and often we must, but in time such forced mobilisation leads us to irritability, anger, burnout and symptoms of all kinds”

James Hollis

Every time, I sit with a Headteacher as their coach, I become acutely aware of the amount of energy they expend in seeking to do what is right for them and right for their schools.
It is not an easy task. Many find themselves in situations where it seems impossible to see the wood for the trees and if they are not supported to find their own way forward, they may inadvertently end up following someone else’s.
More often than not, this other path can end up being the wrong path and for the reasons cited in the above quote, can lead to good people leaving the profession.
To understand why this happens and why there is still such a high rate of attrition amongst Heads, we need to deepen our understanding of three key things that happen to Heads when they ‘temporarily mobilise energy in service to goals’ that are not their own…

1. Disregard for the inner journey

It is my firm and strong belief, that Headship is for many a vocation; a call not only to serve, but also a call to show up as one’s best self. The trouble is, too much of what is provided for Heads in terms of professional development and support in the role, is concerned with the outer garms and vestiges of School Leadership. Such a focus, although often well-intended, disregards the fact that just as the external educational landscape shifts and changes, so too does the personal inner landscape of School Leaders.
It is not enough to just equip them with the tools for understanding policy and curriculum change. They also need to be given the tools to map and understand their own inner terrain.
Ignorance of this fact has led to a system where Heads who desire to do the inner work, feel somewhat disenfranchised. If their own professional contexts place little value on such work, they mistake their own inner turbulence as signs of weakness and not being good enough. Without a voice to counter such thoughts and feelings, they take what they think is the best and only option available to them and leave the profession.
When this happens, we all suffer. Without some kind of professional homing device, to help direct Heads back to their true identity, their best selves, they become disorientated and believe that their only way forward is an early exit from the profession.

2. Normalisation of symptoms of dis-ease

When Heads face ‘dark nights of the soul’, issues of identity, commitment and purpose are pushed to the fore. When these are not addressed, individuals often adopt detrimental coping mechanisms. Which, if they produce results, they are often rewarded for. Our system tends to reward productivity at any costs. This is in spite of what appears to be a stronger focus on well-being from policy makers!
Nevertheless, rewarding detrimental personal behaviours only serves to cause individuals and the system as a whole to normalise symptoms of dis-ease and dysfunction. Until the system is healthy and properly rewards healthy and humane leadership, Heads will continue to leave. The ‘Sacrifice Syndrome’ and its related symptoms, burnout, stress, ill-health etc, will all be considered to be a price worth paying, if school results improve.
However, the travesty is (and many of us know it) they will not improve, while the system is riddled with sickness and ways of being that do not give due care and attention to the needs of the person in the role.

3. Loss of Meaning

From my own personal experience and from my work with Heads, I have observed that when work is without meaning or purpose, the soul suffers. It should never be that in a profession, where there is an assumption that a shared moral framework underpins everything that happens, that School Leaders should feel that their role is without meaning or purpose.
Yet sadly, for too many this is the case. When individuals have found themselves in contexts where they have been robbed of any sense of autonomy or self-efficacy or their values are misaligned, any sense of meaning and purpose that would normally be derived from the leadership role is lost, and with it any desire to remain in the profession.
As the well-being agenda continues to be pushed forward in our schools and links are made with the recruitment and retention of Headteachers, we need to consider what can be done to redress what success looks like in the life of Headteachers. It is my belief, that for significant change to occur and to stem the flow of Heads from the profession, a system of support is needed that will enable Heads to contextualise their ‘results’ and their work within the bigger framework of their life and purpose.


Without a doubt the pandemic brought many unexpected challenges for us all. However, one of the silver linings of the past two years has been a heightened awareness of what matters most for all of us. We learnt:

– The value of community

– The need to stay connected

– The importance of being supported

We also learnt that deeper connections matter, none of us can survive alone and to thrive and overcome the challenges of leadership life we need real, deep, and meaningful connections with others.

That’s why we have launched our new “Heads Together”, a new School Leadership community, designed to connect like-minded school-leaders and to provide a watering hole for inspiration, encouragement and support.

Our “Heads Together” Community is designed to provide School Leaders with:

– A vital network of support to help individuals manage the emotional strains and stresses of the role

– Collaborative forums for thoughtful exploration around timely and important leadership themes

– Inspiration and encouragement throughout the year to help keep leaders’ passion and purpose alive

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

Learn more



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