FINAL Empowering Leaders Interview: Dr Phil Cummins – Characteristics of Strong School Leaders

26 April 2017

In our final Empowering Leaders Interview, Dr Phil Cummins, who will be facilitating the Empowering Leaders Masterclass, gives a brilliant insight into the qualities a strong school leader needs to possess and how they can inspire and encourage their staff and community.

Designed specifically for ambitious educators, the Masterclass is a unique two-day program focused on developing leadership capability and confidence, and enabling career progression.

Do not miss this opportunity to further your leadership skills in 2017.




What qualities make a good leader?

Everyone has their own views on what makes a good leader and at the end of the day, people will most likely develop their own rubric or mantra that explains how they lead. We like to ask people to think about the evidence for good leadership in schools.

Geoff Southworth has done some strong research on the evidence from UK schools about effective leadership, concluding that the core leadership tasks of high-performance leaders in schools are building vision and setting directions, understanding and developing people, redesigning the organisation, and managing the teaching and learning program. He says that the key personality traits that go along with these functions are open-mindedness and a willingness to learn from others, flexible (not dogmatic) thinking, optimism and a positive disposition, and a strong moral compass within a system of core values including persistence and resilience.

At CIRCLE, our work with our clients over the past three decades speaks to the importance of contemporary leadership values such as authenticity – leadership for real, transformation – leadership for change, sustainability – leadership for life, and service – leadership for others.

If you don’t feel you are a natural leader can you still reach a senior leadership position?

Of course you can. Some people take to leadership earlier in their lives, while others acquire a stronger feel for it as their careers progress. Many great leaders become so focused on doing the job of building a culture of excellence in learning that they don’t see the impact that they’re having on shaping this culture themselves.

Others are incredibly humble and naturally defer their own success to the contributions of others. The best leaders are those who are themselves, learners. They carry with them habits of setting goals and seeking feedback from those around them. They are open to new ideas and are tough on themselves in acquiring the skills and dispositions required to get the job done well. These include the capacity to put leadership in action with a variety of leadership styles, cultivate team culture and discipline, develop and implement vision, communicate effectively, make decisions and solve problems, manage risk and lead an organisation through continuous change.

All of these capabilities are much more frequently the by-product of years of study and experience, of learning from and with our colleagues, students, parents, mentors and other stakeholders, than the immediate results of an inherent instinct for the job.

What are some of the challenges facing school leaders at the moment?

We’ve just completed a major research project into this area from which we have derived five key challenges for school leaders over the coming decade:

Achievement: Developing and implementing a shared vision for learning, care and character development that meets the needs of our future society – solving the problem of anticipating what might and must be rather than replicating the past.

Relationships: Negotiating contemporary and emerging concepts and practices of gender, race and class – solving the problem of bringing hidden values and prejudice to the surface and mediating cultural conflict to create internal and external community alignment, and socially just outcomes.

Communications: Developing expertise in accommodating the velocity of change and complexity of managing people in a time of uncertainty – overcoming the fear and solipsism that emanate from complexity and challenge so naturally for so many.

Initiatives: Depowering the rapidly escalating professionalism of many aspects of adolescent and school life, notably in the design and implementation of sporting and other co-curricular programs, including high-contact sports and those with pathways into professional adult competition – solving the problem of managing expectations, traditions and aspirations of students, parents and alumna.

Reputation: Describing and justifying your educational value proposition for parents and students in a time of increased improvement, service and value for money – solving the problem of more for less in an industry where the workforce traditionally leans towards value inputs and processes more than outputs

With the term “leadership” one thinks of a hierarchical structure, particularly in schools. Is this kind of top-down structure still the best way for organisations to inspire employees and their community?

Structure and predictability are important in any organisation, especially a learning community. People derive comfort from the knowledge that they have effective and caring leaders who model and encourage the 21C competencies of collaboration, creative and critical thinking, communications, citizenship, character and change readiness. At the same time, they expect leaders to understand and practice servant leadership in its truest sense: a willingness to put the interests of others before themselves in pursuit of the organisation’s core purpose – better outcomes for more learners.

The authority to lead, therefore, comes less from the position and more from the capacity of the leader to engage a community in its fundamental purpose. Jim Collins talks about humility, willpower and the capacity to bridge the apparently irreconcilable gap between the two as being central to this. “Top-down” doesn’t really describe the complexity of all of this adequately, does it?

Communication is key if staff are to embrace and enact the school vision, yet meeting everyone’s communication needs is incredibly hard. So how can school leaders effectively galvanise a whole group to meet their vision?

Successful leaders help a school to form a shared vision for the future that honours the past, makes sense in the present and also meets the needs of our changing times. The weaving of this ongoing narrative of yesterday, today and tomorrow is an essential component of the school leader’s approach to effective communications. It provides the compelling rationale – the answer to the question “Why?” At the same time, school leaders must also deal in agency – answering the question “How?”

In doing so, they may describe the pathway but at the same time, they need to allow people to co-author the solutions that they themselves will be implementing. This requires a balance of facilitation, consultation and the capacity to listen acutely to what people want. Responsiveness such as this must be balanced with the capacity to inform, educate and persuade people to come on a journey that will require them to be adventurous, take risks and show trust in themselves in each other, and that the reward for such an investment of faith is growth. A thick skin and a good sense of humour both go a long way as well!

Can you please give us a taster of what’s in the ‘toolkit for school leadership’ that you’ll be presenting at the end of the Masterclass?

We will be giving participants a range of evidence-based tools to help them to think through their leadership work in a structured and logical way. One of these includes CIRCLE’s well-proven 5D strategic audit tool, used with over 100 clients in recent years to assist them to gain insight into their own development in a time of educational reform:

  • Discover: What do we know about our performance and culture?
  • Diagnose: What key patterns and trends can we observe from the data?
  • Decide: What should we do?
  • Direct: What strategies can we use to do this well?
  • Deploy: How are we going to get there?

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