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The Power to Transform

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

‘Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.’ Sheryl Sandberg

It matters because leadership has the power to transform. The first of the seven strong claims that Leithwood and Sammons make in their 2006 review of a comprehensive range of the research is that school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning. Taking on the challenge of leading a school community offers an unrivalled opportunity to make a life-changing difference to those in your care. For good or ill, the culture a leader creates, the values they promote and the behaviours they model all have an impact that is measurable in pupil outcomes and in the capacity and performance of classroom teachers, as well as in the levels of happiness and wellbeing they report. Leithwood describes effective leadership as ‘a catalyst for unleashing the potential capacities that already exist in the organisation’. And that is what we are about.

(You’ll notice that inclusive terms are used frequently on this site. Compassionate leadership is about ‘us’ and what we might achieve together; it pays attention to what you have to say because it is not ‘all about me’. Compassionate leaders are more than happy to make time to listen because we want to hear your voice and because we value what you bring to the discussion. Compassionate leaders are interested in you and what is happening in your life because you can only be your best self if you feel able to be yourself at work. Think of it as a coaching relationship: if you want your team to feel engaged, you need to spend time finding out what motivates them; and if you want to develop their capacity to innovate and to resolve problems you need to understand what makes them feel confident.)

Since its 1970s début in the sphere of political leadership research, the concept of transforming leadership has had considerable traction in education circles. In its early incarnation, the model described by Burns saw ‘leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation’. Popularised by Bernard Bass in the eighties, the more fully developed organisational theory of transformational leadership includes four ‘I’s, all of which are consistent with the practice of compassionate leadership:

Individualized Consideration – this owes much to a coaching approach, focusing on gaining an understanding of what motivates each team member and listening to their concerns in order to enable them to see how they can contribute to the team. It involves creating genuine connections and responding with empathy, central to the premise of compassionate leadership.

Intellectual Stimulation – critical to this aspect is creating the conditions in which your team feel confident to take risks. It encourages creative responses and is willing to accept challenges to the status quo. Independent thinking and innovation are hallmarks of this approach which places value on different perspectives. Compassionate leaders welcome diverse thinking, seeing each individual as having something worthwhile to contribute.

Inspirational Motivation – often included at the top of the list, this is what many would recognise as the expression of the leader’s ‘vision’. Fundamentally optimistic, it involves the powerful and engaging communication of a highly appealing vision of the future goals for the organisation and it elicits a purposeful and active response: a commitment to action for change is essential in compassionate leadership.

Idealized Influence – this describes the leader as someone who earns the respect and admiration of those they lead, modelling behaviour which encourages trust and which promotes a belief that obstacles can be overcome in pursuit of the shared mission. The success of compassionate leadership depends on the integrity of the leader, that they are able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Perhaps inevitably, transformational leadership has acquired a certain mystique, where charisma and ‘idealized influence’ have become mythical properties of visionary leaders whose very presence transforms. Take a look at job advertisements for head teachers - including the one for your current post! - and you will find that governors and trustees are united in seeking ‘an exceptional individual’, someone who has within them all the qualities to enable outstanding performance. There is some truth in this, but in the sense that they inspire a collective, collaborative response to the vision they articulate, rather than that they monopolise it.

Sandberg’s memorable line, above, is resonant on two counts: for its assumption that leaders should lead for the benefit of others, in many ways the premise of this approach, and for the reminder that if the benefit is to be lasting it must empower rather than develop dependency. As teachers, our professional expertise is in empowering our students with the skills and confidence to fly (eventually) unaided. As school leaders, not only do we wish this for our students but also for our staff; and, just as our students will fly higher than they imagined possible if we nurture their self-belief, so our teams can become soaring versions of themselves if they are encouraged to believe that what they bring is of worth and if we take the time to listen to what they offer.


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