Understanding my identity as a leader.

This blog feels like a natural sequel to my recent blog on “What I Care About” and comes about after a virtual Deputy Head’s Network meeting on Friday with a fantastic input from Liz Barratt, Fiona More and Sarah Heesom – three leaders that I respect and look up to for a whole host of…

This blog feels like a natural sequel to my recent blog on “What I Care About” and comes about after a virtual Deputy Head’s Network meeting on Friday with a fantastic input from Liz Barratt, Fiona More and Sarah Heesom – three leaders that I respect and look up to for a whole host of reasons.

Recently, leaders up and down the country (and probably worldwide) have found themselves flung into a sphere of leadership unlike any they have experienced before. It has tested courage, nerve and tenacity. It has pushed leaders’ everywhere to reconnect with what they believe in and test their “Big Relationships” at all levels.

On March 20th 2020, education changed exponentially. Traditional methods of teaching and learning were paused and remote/digital/virtual learning kicked in just a few days later.

As a Leader, I was well and truly in Operator/Manager mode: things needed to be done, and my usual leadership style – consulting stakeholders and gathering feedback – was out of the window. What was needed at this time was clarity, decisiveness and action. This remained the case for several weeks in light of the continually changing DfE Guidance and the constantly shifting landscape.

Steve Radcliffe’s Leadership: Plain and Simple is a leadership book I constantly come back to. It’s my ‘handbook to leadership’ if you like.

He refers to three modes: Operator/Manager/Leader as identified in this image below:

In his book, he says:

I have yet to find anyone who at times doesn’t slide back into Operator/Manager when being in Leader Mode is what is needed.

Radcliffe (2012, P23)

I agree with him. I’ve been there. It is easily done, because as we discovered earlier, we like it in Operator/Manager because we see quick results.

Harrison Owen added value to this point when he said:

Leadership is often spoken of as if it were simply advanced management. The presumption is that whatever the manager is supposed to do, the leader does more of and better. Leadership is not advanced management; it is radically different from management, and to equate the two is to miss an essential distinction.

At a termly Deputy Head’s Network, our CEO reflected on her own leadership throughout this pandemic. Several colleagues nodded in agreement when she eluded to being in Operator/Manager mode too. She qualified this by saying, “I’m safe in this mode. I get things done and it feels good.” Which I wholeheartedly agree with. Who doesn’t love a list and takes great satisfaction in ticking the last item off it?

However, as we move ever closer to the end of term, it is important that we scan the horizon and “take the two-footed leap” into next year. In her words, “there would be nothing worse than arriving in September having not given it any forethought.” And I agree. This week has been most “in leader mode” I have felt for a while.

But is it as easy as this? To make the switch from one mode to another effectively and meaningfully?

Liz, Fiona and Sarah presented a great Keynote which helped me to reconnect with myself as a leader, to re-establish my identity. And what better way to do that than to take a “deep-dive” (their words not mine!) into our core values. Liz, being a geography teacher at heart, used the Earth’s structure as a metaphor.

The Earth is made up of several different layers. This can be likened to the layers of a leader. Prepare for a mini geography lesson:


The CRUST is a relatively thin layer which manifests any activity or changes in the Mantle and the Upper Core. It is what we see in terms of landforms: mountains, volcanoes, valleys, ocean trenches etc.

The MANTLE makes up 84% of the Earth and is mostly slowly moving molten rock. Heat and pressure cause convection currents to drive tectonic activity in the Crust.

The OUTER CORE is what influences the magnetic field of the Earth and what drives the geothermal energy. The Earth’s magnetic field is crucial to the health of the Earth. It maintains the ozone layer which protects us from harmful ultra-violet radiation.

The INNER CORE is solid metal. It provides the geothermal energy for the Earth. It very slowly grows over time as the outer core solidifies. However, this growth is not uniform. It occurs in lumps and bunches and is influenced by the activity in the Mantle.

We only understand the Core by measuring the behaviours in the Mantle which can be seen on the Crust.

So what does this have to do with me as a leader? Well the layers of the Earth a very much comparable to the layers of a leader:

The CrustThe Crust is how we present to the world. It is what is going on below the surface. We can understand ourselves on a superficial level or we can look below the surface to understand what is driving us, where we get our energy from and to recognise our relatively unchanging values in our core.
The MantleThe Mantle is dynamic and it is where our actions and behaviours play out. These behaviours are influenced by what is at our core.
The Outer CoreThe Outer Core is our energy centre and the origin of our magnetic field. This drives us and provides our protection.
The Inner CoreThe Inner Core – our almost solid part – is only comprised of two or three main values and maybe a few subsidiary ones. Knowing what they are helps us to understand who we are, how we behave and how we can be at our best more of the time.

This led to an activity whereby we identified aspects of our personal and professional life that fit into each of the layers above. It was a tough exercise as it called for real introspection – something I’d not done for a while, especially as a leader over the last 3 months. My answers were varied and covered lots of ground, as you can see from the diagram below.

A few bits stood out to me:

  • The idea of excellence
  • Educational leadership and teaching and learning featured heavily
  • The desire to become a good school
  • A clear career path
  • A clear home-life plan
  • The desire for more knowledge

After reviewing it, there were some themes that came out:

  • Connections
  • Learning
  • Relationships

These led me to reflect on my core values. Lots of “words” came out and formed a long list of values that are as equally important as the other, but what were my “inner core”? Those few elements that make me the leader I am. I concluded that the following four values make me the leader I am today. I would like to think that they will never change – they may be added to, but hopefully not eroded or compromised.

  • Honesty
  • Self-improvement
  • Integrity
  • Courage

These were interesting as over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on my NPQH submission which is an inspection of aspects of leadership and I came across The Seven Principles of Public Life – also known as The Nolan Principles – which are described as “the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders.” Several of these match with the themes and values I identify with.

The great thing about the session was that it was facilitated. I was guided to make my own decisions through close self-inspection and it was done in a safe and supportive environment – given that there were over 50 other colleagues in the “room”.

This part of the session finished with a Breakout Room conversation with a colleague. This provided and opportunity to share what we had arrived at, question it, challenge it and clarify it. Through a brief but meaningful coaching conversation, it was great that my partner was able to repeat back to me what I thought I was saying. This was both a relief and a reassurance at the same time. Most importantly, it was great to connect with another leader on a leadership level.

So what did I take from the session and what are my next steps? For me it was great to re-connect with my values base, in a dedicated arena free from the distractions of school life.

I went back to my Leadership: Plain and Simple book and re-read the section of conscious practice:

“In leader mode, your first thought is not ‘what shall I do?’ It’s ‘who do I want to engage and what is the request I want to make of them?’

Radcliffe suggests pausing and noticing what I am like:

  • How strong is you tendency to just do the job yourself?
  • Is making requests of others your first or second thought?
  • Who are the people you make requests of?
  • Who are the people you don’t?
  • How clear is your picture of you delivering in Leader Mode rather than in Operator/Manager Mode?

This coming week, I will be reflecting on the points above and finding opportunities to reaffirm and make visible my core values.