Why we need to look beyond job titles when defining a ‘leader’, from Oliver Wright.

Why do we lead?” It’s a simple question, but one that many of us never even begin to consider. It’s also one that goes far beyond job title and career progression and begins to nudge into our whole personality and character.

How leadership is viewed

I’ve lost count of the times people have told me they’re not a leader or, more specifically, not involved in school leadership. This seems to come from a very narrow (and positional) view of school leadership. The headteacher is the school leader. The Senior Leadership Team (or those with ‘leadership’ in their job title) are the leaders. Everyone else is a ‘normal’ teacher or a member of the support staff. This narrow definition misses much of the subtlety of what goes on in any situation, in any organisation, in any school.

Management and leadership: what’s the difference?

Before looking at leadership specifically, we need to think about management. Much of what needs to happen in any organisation comes down to management. There needs to be a certain level of order, without which all sorts of chaos can happen (and generally does). Schools need routines, policies and procedures. These are generally put in place by those in ‘leadership’ positions. As a headteacher, you are responsible for ensuring the correct safeguarding procedures are in place. As a subject leader, you are responsible for the organisation of your subject.

Often, these systems are the basis for everything that comes after. They are the foundations. Get the right systems in place for everything from behaviour to safeguarding to stock ordering and a school can run smoothly. For the last year and beyond, much of what has been happening in schools has relied almost entirely on management. Often, crisis management. The focus has been on keeping everyone safe. There have been policies, procedures, routines. These have been necessary so that everyone is safe – and everyone has a role to fulfil. This level of management has been vital, and everyone is full of admiration for the way schools have been managed during these times. This has enabled a degree of normality in the lives of so many.

So, what of leadership? Is there a place for leadership in our schools? I would argue that leadership is vital. Management is the foundation for a successful school. Leadership helps us to achieve far more. Management helps us to be good. Having the right systems in place and ensuring compliance gets us part way there. Leadership helps us go far beyond by engaging and inspiring others. We do this with a clear and compelling purpose.

Leadership beyond titles

What we often don’t realise is that this isn’t just what senior leaders do; there are many in school who show leadership – and it’s not always who you might expect. Think about your school. Those who have influence may not be those with leadership in their job title. Those who engage others may not be thought of as leaders. But so many are! The best in schools spot these people and nurture, encourage and enable them.

If you think of yourself as just one of the crowd, stop and think just for a moment. Leadership coach Neil Jurd states: “If you have an idea and you engage others to help you to turn that idea into reality, you are leading.” 1 If you can unite others behind a clear and compelling purpose, then you should begin to think of yourself as a leader and begin looking for where you can positively use this influence.

If you can give people the ‘why’ to explain what needs to be done, you are already on that journey. If you can give meaning to what needs to be done by providing the ‘because’ then you could be unlocking the potential of others.

Seeing yourself as a leader, beginning to act with the conviction of a leader, purposefully taking people with you can be very powerful. If we encourage others to see themselves as leaders and support them in their journey, the possibilities are incredibly powerful.

Leadership at its core

Jurd talks of four core leadership behaviours:

 “Leaders always behave honestly,
“Leaders sometimes behave bravely,
“Leaders are often selfless,
“Leaders often take time to think.” 1

We have all seen leaders who don’t do all of these (some don’t manage any!). However, we should focus on ourselves rather than getting distracted by others. If you are starting to wonder if you could be a leader, focus on this. If the idea of leadership excites you, then look for opportunities to display these behaviours. If you already consider yourself a leader, look for opportunities to nudge others towards these behaviours.

Honesty is the foundation on which the others are built. Be absolutely committed to this. Integrity is everything. When the time is right, be brave, step outside of your comfort zone and embrace the challenge. Raise up the needs of others. Wanting others to succeed runs through all effective leaders. If that’s what you want, it may just be that you are one too. Lastly, take time to think. Leaders need to act, but it needs to be considered action. Getting things done is important, but constant busyness should never be the goal.

Are you a hidden leader?

Many see leadership as being for certain types of people. ‘Leaders are confident,’ ‘Leaders are loud,’ ‘Leaders are of a certain age.’ The preconceptions are endless and off-putting for someone who doesn’t see themselves fitting that stereotype. Going back to the simple definition gives clarity. ‘If you have an idea and you engage others to help you to turn that idea into reality, you are leading.’ There is nothing here about being a particular personality type. Effective leaders can be loud or quiet, energetic or laid back. We all lead out of who we are. The only judgement is around our effectiveness and our ability to reflect, develop and become even more effective.

If you are energised by these ideas, it may be time to step up. Whatever your job title is, you may be a leader in hiding. You may be a potential leader; you may be a beginning leader. If this is you, have confidence and begin to step into the role. If you are a leader and can see the potential in those around you, begin to encourage and enable them. There are countless people with potential just ready to be nurtured and developed.


  1. Jurd, N (2020) The Leadership Book: A step by step guide to excellent leadership. Mr Gresty


  • Oliver Wright

    Oliver is an experienced headteacher who helps those who lead at The Key. Before this he worked in primary schools in Sheffield and Derbyshire for over 20 years. His experience ranges from large city schools to small Peak District schools. He also presents for Teacher Hug Radio and is a co-chair of governors.
    twitter icon LinkedIn icon

    View all posts