Who is the real leader?

The relationship between the head teacher and the deputy within a school could be described differently within each individual school. This echoes, in many ways the relationship between the main characters of lead singer and lead guitarist in a heavy metal band.

Does the dynamic of this relationship rest upon the individual personalities of the people within this relationship? Are the character traits they possess the deciding factor on how the partnership runs and whether it is a success or not? Or is it rather the stages the individuals are at in their respective careers? Does a head teacher nearing the end of their career hold different expectations for their deputy than a young, fast tracked head teacher would? And vice versa, does a deputy nearing retirement consider their responsibilities in a different way to a young, ambitious deputy? Perhaps it is the aspirations and visions of the individuals that temper the relationship the most. Would the driven deputy embarking on NPQH behave differently within a relationship with their head teacher to a deputy who has been in the same role, in the same school for over a decade and holds no desire to further progress or improve within their role or career?

So how do these different relationships develop and succeed? Is it a delicate relationship, where people walk on egg shells to avoid offending each other, skirting around the real issues and shirk the difficult conversations and discussions that should be held. A relationship which cracks when any real pressure is applied. Perhaps it is more of a tempestuous relationship. Two strong personalities, fighting for their voices to be heard the loudest, sure they are right and unwilling to consider another’s point of view, unbending and unyielding to any other way than their own.


Fred Durst’s blast at guitarist Wes Borland.

Can it truly be an equal relationship? Can there truly be two people whose views converge and meet, who truly agree on everything. And if there was, would this be healthy? Most senior leaders would agree that robust disagreement and discussion leads to the synthesis of new, better ideas and more successful outcomes, promoting higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Dudley Field Malone once said, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.” And as senior leaders wouldn’t it be wrong to assume we have all the answers?

So, what exactly is the role of the deputy head within this relationship? Are they the lead guitarist, whose job is to entertain and enthral with their skills, to show off and perform in front of the crowds and lead the band during their specific, planned solo? But one who also knows their place is to stand firmly behind the lead singer while they do their thing, and know never to compete for the stage? Within a heavy metal band it is rare that there is ever successfully two big personalities. Yes, there are extremely famous lead guitarists, such as Tony Iommi and Slash, but their personalities on stage go no further beyond their amazing guitar playing skills, they allow the limelight to fall on Ozzy Osbourne and Axl Rose. Is this like the deputy heads who are exceptionally talented at their role, yet still know their place is not to outshine their head teacher? When the head teacher is out, the deputy flawlessly takes centre stage, performs to the crowd and with ease leads the band. But only for that solo, as soon as the head teacher returns to take centre stage, the deputy bows out back to the back to conscientiously continue their supporting role.

Perhaps, at times, the deputy head may feel like the drummer in the band instead. They sit at the back of the school, maintaining the steady rhythm for the school, helping to ensure high standards of teaching and learning, ensuring assessment is accurate and rigorous. Teachers, and all staff, their band mates, rely on them to keep going and to keep them all in time together, taking for granted that they will always be there. However, they can often feel overlooked or forgotten. It could be considered a thankless task, being the unnoticed drummer at the back of the stage, whom no one notices, however without them the whole song falls apart. Can you name which band Nicko McBrain plays for? Or Vinnie Paul? Or Mikkey Dee?

Conversely, what is the role of the head teacher within this relationship? Are they the lead singer, all eyes on them? They are undoubtedly the face of the school, the instantly recognisable image and name synonymous with the school’s character and values. But with this comes pressure; moving slightly away from heavy metal it could be reminiscent of the No Doubt video ‘Don’t Speak’, as Gwen Stefani, the lead singer, gets all the limelight and attention to the disgust of her band mates behind. The role of lead singer with a band brings a sense of overwhelming responsibility, they can’t forget the words and cannot afford to be out of tune, off beat or looking anything less than how they want to be perceived, and as such, the pressure on the head teachers shoulders is heavy and can weigh them down. What if the pressure is too much? There are many stories in the news of a shortage of head teachers, but also, sadly, head teachers who couldn’t face it anymore and chose to end their own lives, echoing the difficulties faced by Broken Hope’s Joe Ptacek, Mayhem’s “Dead” and GG Allin. Being the face of the school also brings a responsibility – there is no forgiveness for not being on your game when in the public eye, you cannot be seen to show too much personal emotion, you are in control and in charge, even when you are crying and your heart is breaking on the inside.

Across many musical genres it is not uncommon for band members to leave, or go their separate ways, due to ‘musical differences’, and heavy metal is no different. From the famous splits such as Guns n Roses, Queensryche and Rage Against the Machine, to bands such as Gorgoroth that have retained only one original member while the others have left to pursue different musical careers and Iron Maiden which has changed members like we change underwear, everyone has their favourite lead singer, is this like the head teacher whose style and vision rings true and resonates for some staff but not for others? And then bands like Kataklysm, whose trademark was their fast, chaotic ‘hyperblast’ beats, until each band member left and their style changed repeatedly with each new member, much like the school that finds its vision and ethos being repeatedly manipulated and adjusted according to the new leadership, which asks the question, should the vision and ethos of a school be solely down to the steering of the senior leadership? Yes it needs to be refreshed and revisited regularly, but shouldn’t it stem from somewhere deeper than the select few at the top? Shouldn’t it be more organic and belong to all the people within the community, as it will surely be them that it will impact the most?

But how often does a deputy head leave a school purely because of ‘leadership differences’? Or do they make do and adapt their own vision and beliefs, both pedagogical, and even day to day operationally, to fit with the head teacher’s, so as to work congruously alongside? But is this okay? Yes, by not fully letting go of their true ideals and values they can provide a critical eye and healthy discussion with the head teacher, but can you be the best deputy head you can be if you have to concede to another’s beliefs and don’t remain true to your own beliefs? A deputy head may be limited in how they can perceive and apply policy in their daily practice, unlike the class teacher who can adapt and tailor policy to their own individual classroom needs. Perhaps in these situations a deputy head can learn what they would to do if in full control, as well as observe and learn from good practice, waiting in the wings until it is the right time for them to come to the foreground, much like Dave Grohl, sitting at the back of Nirvana on the drums, writing songs but keeping them to himself, until it was his time to step out of the shadows and rock out as the lead singer in the Foo Fighters.

One last thought on the role and relationship between the senior leaders of a school. Classical symphony orchestras have a conductor in charge, to maintain tempo, bring people in at the right time and to ensure the melody, harmony and all other parts are played as they are supposed to. This is analogous to the head teacher, pulling together the strands of the school improvement plan, ensuring that all staff, pupils, parents and the community are all singing from the same song sheet. But perhaps the subtle lesson to be learned is that within the symphony orchestra it is the lead violin player that is the ‘leader’ of the orchestra, only second to the person standing at the front, and the one who leads pre-concert tuning and the operational and technical characteristics of the orchestra. Furthermore, within this set up, each different section of instruments has their own ‘principal’ to lead their group and play the solos. Perhaps senior leadership should take note of this and rely more on the people within their own orchestra, the teachers, staff and pupils, and give them more responsibility, allowing them to lead the music throughout the school. It could be that regardless of the relationship between those at the top, it is actually the relationship between everyone in a school that creates the real, meaningful drive for progress and harmony across all areas of school life.

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