7 lessons learnt during my leadership journey

Bukky Yusuf

Bukky Yusuf is an associate assistant headteacher leading the NQT / ITT development programme and IT to enhance teaching & learning. She has spent over a decade in London schools, teaching Science, A level Chemistry and Level 3 BTEC. She is also a Secondary science consultant and qualified coach. Bukky is a London regional leader for WomenEd and is registered as a leadership coach as part of a pilot run by the Department for Education.  She has presented at various conferences including Bett, PedagooHampshire and WomenEd, supporting the development of educators at all levels and promotes initiatives to help colleagues maintain their wellbeing. Bukky shares these key messages through social media such as StaffRm, Twitter and Yammer

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Originally published on 19th September 2016 //  Image credit: HBO, Game of Thrones. Originally published on 19th September 2016 // Image credit: HBO, Game of Thrones.

This blog is an overview of a presentation that I delivered at a Lead Meet event in June 2016. The end of my first senior leadership post has provided the best opportunity to reflect upon the most relevant things that I have learnt. In this role, it became apparent that the skills and attributes that helped me reach this particular point were not necessarily the ones that would enhance my skills / influence as a leader. The seven points below are a summary of my reflections during this period of time and an outline of things I wish that I had known at the start.

Lesson number one – be politically savvy

I will never forget the advice provided to the whole leadership team by the headteacher about the importance of being a ‘political animal’. Prior to this, I was one of those that felt ‘office’ politics was ‘a dirty game’. Those of us who are authentic would never engage in such activities.

When I was introduced to the political animals described as an owl, a fox, a sheep and a donkey, the penny dropped about the importance of social awareness with regards to one’s own organisation, in order to completely understand the ‘lay of the land’. The leader that emulates the characteristics of a wise owl is one that acts with focus, integrity and power. They are a leader that can generate support and build alliances. They are also visible, approachable and highly observant.

Using this model for political awareness also helps to identify which type of animal you are and outlines attributes which need to be developed in order to become the owl. More details of this model can be found in the links below:



Lesson number two – identify your allies

We often choose to liaise with our friends and those we feel most comfortable with. Leaders have to strategically consider initiatives that are being developed. This therefore means that we also need to recognise the best people to help move our plans forward. Even if they are not friends, these colleagues are clearly identified as those with a common interest in what will be achieved. One great piece of advice that stayed with me during my NPQSL course is to build your working relationships outside of any formal meeting, in the same way that we would establish rapport with students outside of lessons. This would then create stronger foundations for support.

Lesson number three - get a mentor… and a coach

Seek a mentor that has done your role or is doing the role that you would like to do. Finding one outside your immediate team / organisation, will allow you to gain expertise as well as a sounding board. Another benefit is that you can see the possible career options from your current position. In order to make the most out of your sessions, it would be useful to undertake a skills audit to help you identify where your immediate strengths lie and highlight development areas. This can help you seek specific guidance on key aspects of your leadership.

Generally, coaching differs to mentoring in the fact that it is a confidential arrangement where you are asked questions to help consider situations, solutions and extend your thinking. A coach will therefore help challenge your perspectives as a leader and help you review your role from different angles.

To help with this, the Department for Education are providing free coaching for 1000 women looking to develop / extend their leadership skills. Full details of this programme can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/women-leading-in-education

Lesson number 4 - communicate what you do

Some of us find it very challenging to share what we do and highlight our successes. It may be seen as bragging, un-British or simply not part of what we were raised to do. Or perhaps, you may be one that feels ‘actions speak louder than words’. Since becoming a leader, I realise that I had fallen into the ‘I will let my work speak for me’ type of mentality. However, we must remember that leaders work through the influence of others. And if others are unaware of what we do, then how will they consider us as leaders? What impact does this have upon our role as leaders?

A simple piece of advice provided by Iesha Small (@ieshasmall), for introverts who are uncomfortable in this regard, is merely to ‘talk to one or two people at a time to share what we do’. No matter how you decide to fulfil this, find a way that works for you so that it comes across as authentic.

Lesson number 5 – develop emotional resilience

You will be tested as a leader.

There may be some that will attempt to undermine you.

There may be some who spread inaccurate information about you.

There may even be others who completely ignore you or refuse to even acknowledge you as a leader.

In order to prepare for whatever comes your way, you must remember to stay in control and ensure that your behaviours reflect this. This does not mean that you become a robot and never display emotions. However, when you feel the need to have an outburst, you must do this behind closed doors and with a trusted colleague / friend.

The bottom line about these types of incidences is that they will teach you two things about yourself as a leader:

  1. What you are really all about ie are you really cut out for this leadership role?    
  2. How you respond to things ie do you need to manage your responses to negative experiences in more     effective ways?

Lesson number 6 – craft the difficult conversations

This key point builds upon lesson number 5, when there are times we will have to speak to colleagues about things we would much rather avoid.

In order to handle these crucial conversations as sensitively and as well as we can, we have to plan things in advance and do our ground work. The difficult conversation checklist below provides a good basis for this preparation:

Lesson number 7 - make time for yourself

An effective leader is someone that plans and works strategically.

In order to be strategic, one has to think.

In order to think, one must safeguard their time to think.

Prioritising our own wellbeing will help us work more effectively as a leader as we will be operating from a place of rest and taking deliberate, well considered actions. In this regard, we can also model the need for others within your institution to also take care of their work life balance, in whichever way works best for them.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. It allowed me to ascertain what I could have done differently in order to have had greater impact in my leadership role. However, for educators considering leadership or just about to embark in this role, I hope that the points above aid your transition during your next career steps and help move your organisations forward.

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