My 7 rules for leading when it is hard

There has never been a time for me when it hasn’t been hard. Towards the end of my first headship, after OFSTED had been extremely complimentary about the turnaround that had taken place and had made some blush-inducing remarks about me, someone said “You can go and get a proper headship now – somewhere really good”. I knew that would never happen: even if I had wanted it, I didn’t have the CV for it and I’m not sure how I’d go down with middle-class parents! But above all else, to put the kind of energy into my work that I need to – I need to care deeply about it and for me that has always meant going where it is hard. This leads me straight into my first rule:

1. Remember why you took the job

Leaders don’t take jobs because they think they will be easy; you didn’t take the job because you thought it would be easy, but because you thought you would make a difference. Get through this bad time in order to follow through the promises you made and then you can go. This doesn’t last forever and it doesn’t define you; running away from it or leaving it half done will.

I got through the whole of the academic year 2005-06 by telling myself: I will get the David Young Community Academy open and give it a successful start, and then I can resign and leave knowing I did what I promised to do. (I’m still there by the way!)

2. This isn’t about you

Sometimes because “the buck stops here”, and sometimes because we care so deeply, it is easy to fall into the trap of looking inwards. I have learned that the time to look inwards is when things seem easier; when it’s really, really hard – this isn’t about you. No-one is helped by your introspection; they need your leadership. In difficult times what people require most is to feel secure in their leaders and emotion, insecurity, and wavering really do not help. Of course we feel insecure and emotional and unsure, but in the tough times we need to “encapsulate” it (stick it in a capsule to be opened when we are through this patch!)

3. People need to be told the truth, but also given direction

Insecurity is caused by a whole range of behaviours which are seen by those who indulge in them as protective. These can range from serious cover-ups to minor excuse making, but they really backfire in the tough times. The only way through the really tough times is to tell the truth and the skill of the leader is to do so at the same time as showing the direction to make things better. The simple fact is that just about everyone wants to a) do a good job, b) be empowered to make things better (particularly when they have made mistakes), and c) feel confident that their leader knows the facts and is supporting improvements.

I often hear people talk about “blame-free” cultures and I find this language a bit strange because if we have the language of “blame” in any form we will never really manage our way through the most difficult times. Maybe this is about my catholic formation (condemn the sin; not the sinner), but in tough times I have found the assumption that everyone wants to do their best the simplest way of making sure that we can all tell the truth and be given a new confidence and sense of direction. I suppose what this really means is that the culture you develop when the going isn’t quite so tough will define how you cope when it is.

4. It isn’t about who is right and who is wrong
In unravelling the most complex issues I have learned over the years that there is rarely a right and wrong – indeed I now have a mantra that everyone is right, I just need to understand their “degree of rightness” from their perspective. This is as true of DfE nonsense as it is of playground fights. Once I accepted this it made managing the most difficult situations a little easier. In the toughest times we need to listen more closely, probe more deeply, empathise in a more disciplined fashion and exercise our own intellectual muscles as though training for the Olympics.

5. Be wary of advice-givers
My golden rule is this – the professionals and outsiders who care about you and your organisation are there when times are good and they are there when times are challenging. Those who only turn up to share reflected glory when you are flavour of the month, or to sniff about when they think there is trouble looming – these people are to be avoided. When you are leading through the toughest times be acutely aware of agendas.

6. Hold your nerve
To do this you need to practice 1 above, but you also need to use personal support networks, eat and drink well, exercise, protect yourself from people who drain your leadership ability and confidence and maintain the ability to look over the horizon.

7. Re-watch the West Wing
You can never watch the West Wing enough. One of the important messages for leaders from WW is “What’s next?”. Great leader managing the toughest situation and as soon as it’s over “OK, what’s next?” Sometimes I think I don’t want to live like that anymore and then I realise that if I really didn’t I’d be doing that easier job.

As I thought about how to finish this blog I thought about the thing that really helps and it leads me to paraphrase that naff old aphorism:

You don’t need to be a person of faith to do this job; but it helps.


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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12 Responses to My 7 rules for leading when it is hard

  1. Nigel Fisher says:

    I don’t usually comment on blogs….. but I just thought I ought to say …thank you.

  2. Megan Crawford. says:

    Excelllent Ros, thanks. I am taking this with me to my new post as Director of the Institute of Education in Plymouth. People keep saying “you’re leaving Cambridge??” but I want to make a difference in the South West in education and also be part of helping Plymouth forward. Thanks again.

  3. Miriam Oakley says:

    Thank you – your timing is spot on!

  4. Julie Caton says:

    Hi Ros This is excellent! My favourites are 2 and 6. Thanks – another great blog!


  5. Thanks for this. May I add treat people like a fish on a line. Coax them into the net by playing them on a light line, knowing if you pull too hard it will snap and they will be lost to you.

  6. Thank you Ros. I am ‘bouncing back’ and your words helped.

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  8. Julia Skinner (@theheadsoffice) says:

    A great read Ros. I have shared it over at Association of Bristol Governors site

  9. Debbie Marks says:

    Great read, couldnt agree more 🙂

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  11. misswilsey says:

    This is a fab post. Thank you sharing your wisdom and insights. I will re-read, reflect and share.
    It will give a lot of leaders strength this term.

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