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.


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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