Home / Dr Jill Berry’s Blog – National Early Headship Conference 2017
Dr Jill Berry’s Blog – National Early Headship Conference 2017

It was a pleasure to be part of Forum Education’s #NewHeads17 Conference on 13 October. Heads in their first three years of headship, in addition to a number who were about to step into the role, gathered to consider issues, priorities, strategies and support. The event itself provided them with a useful network and the opportunity to engage with fellow professionals who were at a similar stage in their leadership journey. The atmosphere was energised, positive and warm. The focus was very much on vision and values, and sustainable, purposeful leadership which enables leaders to make the most positive difference to the lives of the children and young people and the adults in their schools.

So what is it that new heads need if they are to thrive and to continue to develop personally and professionally in the role? I suggest the following five things are paramount:


I recognise that this may fluctuate! I remember as a head having days where I felt, ‘I’m actually doing OK at this,’ followed by days where I thought, ‘Who am I kidding?! I’m barely getting away with this and someone is going to find me out…’ I would suggest that this is quite normal, and it is interesting to see which heads will admit to it and which give the impression that they have no self-doubt at all! Clearly you want to present a calm and confident face to those you lead, but in my experience people do not expect their leaders to be infallible. They DO expect them to be honest, to have authenticity and integrity. I suggest that leaders need a fundamental belief in their capacity to do what they know needs to be done – including the most challenging aspects of the role. Feel the fear – but do it anyway.

The capacity to build and to work successfully with effective teams

And new heads are not alone. When you step into the role you will inherit a team around you which you will continue to build, reinforce and develop over time. Leadership is, in my view, all about getting the best from others. New heads need to be committed to doing all they can to strengthen the capacity of the teams around them, winning hearts and minds and securing emotional engagement so that the school moves forward together in the fulfilment of its clearly articulated and communicated aims. This is not a quick fix; if you begin your headship and recognise that you do not yet have ‘the right people in the right seats on the bus’ (Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great’, 2001), then begin to formulate your vision of what you do need from the teams around you, and work towards that at every opportunity.

Resilience and courage

This does require strength and bravery on the part of the incoming leader – the capacity to smile even when (particularly when) you do not feel like smiling; the determination to lift others when they most need it and not to grind them down; the commitment to helping those you lead manage the inevitable stress involved in the job they do, rather than adding to it. I believe resilience builds over time, with experience and increasing confidence. I recognise I was a more resilient leader in my tenth year of headship than in my first three years – and I knew this because my capacity to get over things and to bounce back after difficulties and disappointments speeded up. The process does take time. Try not to be overly critical of yourself. Give yourself credit for small wins and successes and build your courage and resilience as you settle into the role.

The right temperament – John Dunford’s four Hs

The wonderful John Dunford, one of the wisest voices in education today, concluded the #NewHeads17 conference with his advice, gleaned from an illustrious career in education leadership. He spoke of the four Hs which, he believes, leaders at all levels need. New heads are likely to have honed their leadership skills during their time as Middle and Senior Leaders (and, of course, leading learning in the classroom, which they will have done from their first day in post). John suggests strong leadership requires Hope, Humanity, Humility and Humour. The skills you require as a head will develop over time. You will continue to learn and grow in the role, ‘building the bridge as you walk on it, as Robert Quinn (2004) suggests. There is much that you will need to know, that you can find out about. But having the right temperament is key.

Support and the opportunity to work in collaboration with others

Having positive support networks, personal and professional, is essential. Knowing when you can keep going but when you need to stop and send up a flare, ask for and act on advice, is crucial. This is how you can ensure that your leadership is sustainable and balanced and you do not burnt out. Having those around you who help you to feel better about yourself, who help to replenish your self-belief so that you feel rested, refreshed and energised after spending time with them, will be increasingly important. Use online networks in addition to face to face contact. Collaborate and learn from others – contributing to their learning at the same time. And book to attend #NewHeads18 in Nottingham on Friday 12th October 2018. I guarantee you will not regret it!

Very best wishes in your new headship,

Jill Berry

Read more about the national early headship conference here: National Early Headship Conference 2017