Looking forward

Compassionate leadership in a school context

Bob Griffin (Exeter School) considers what makes a compassionate leader in the school environment.

Leadership is often said to be about vision, strategy, courage, passion, decisiveness, flexibility of mind, and determination. However, this set of qualities can be outward-facing and not particularly people-centred. Human beings are at the core of any organisation and unlocking their potential, nurturing their wellbeing and protecting them are critical to any leader’s success.

Exercising one’s leadership obligations in the light of this understanding of pupils, staff and parents can engender lasting trust. I suspect that, when looking back, school leaders often remember the development of people and the personal interventions that enable every day and extraordinary outcomes rather than gloriously successful events, splendid new facilities or outstanding academic results.

Leadership informed by empathy is at the heart of every leader’s role in young people’s lives. We must see pupils as individuals, and not simply vessels into which we pour information. Reflex actions, such as asking pupils or colleagues how they are, listening to them, thanking them for what they have done, and showing interest in their lives beyond school are daily illustrations of sensitivity at work.

The fact that we are compassionate means that we will undoubtedly get the best out of them. People respond better in their learning and work when they feel valued and when their unique situations are understood. We must aim to influence others, but not to dragoon people into obedience.

We mustn’t demand, but persuade and encourage. We should celebrate strengths whenever possible and not dwell unduly on weaknesses.

Self-awareness is critical, too: we must identify and manage in ourselves what we see in others. Being willing to change one’s mind and to apologise when things don’t turn out as well as we had hoped reminds others that we can, and do, reflect on our responsibility for their welfare.

Leadership is a privileged responsibility, whose success hinges upon doing the right thing. Nevertheless, there’s a balance to be struck between the exercise of human kindness and one’s professional duty to lead effectively. Some decisions are simply necessary, but unpopular.

Having considered all the options, we must aim to deliver the best solutions for the majority of constituencies whilst securing the broad understanding and approval of those affected. Perhaps it boils down to an engagement with reasonableness, to always balance what is right with what is acceptable, having regard for what needs to be achieved for the benefit of the majority.

The test of a person’s legacy in leadership, and the real judgement of their compassion, will be how well they can live with themselves after their work is done.