Twelve ways to lead like a turtle

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Do you lead like a turtle? John Dabell explains why turtles can teach us a lot about effective school leadership


Imagine if you had a reputation in your school for “leading like a turtle”. You'd probably think it was an insult and a toxic plot to oust you. Far from it. Turtle leadership is highly regarded and something to be proud of. Let's take a look.


1, A turtle makes progress only when it sticks its neck out.

Turtles only advance when they stick their neck out and effective leaders know that they will have to stick their neck out for what they believe in.

Those who stay in their protective shells play it safe, but this isn't leading, it is hiding.

Passionate and principled leaders take risks, they have clear beliefs and values, and they concern themselves with doing the right things.

Venturing to offer an opinion that others may not agree with or expressing something that others are afraid to say out loud is what turtle leaders do.


2, A turtle knows when to pull its neck in

Effective leaders know when to retreat and admit mistakes; vulnerability takes courage.

There are times when an initiative, idea or project you instigated just doesn't work and you need to put the brakes on and rewind.

Don’t pretend you know more than you know. Mistakes should be seen as learning opportunities. Others will not bare their necks until leaders expose theirs, so they create environments and relationships that make it safe to be vulnerable.


3, A turtle has a hard shell

Turtles have a hard shell that acts as armour, protects them from predators and makes them resilient.

School leaders need a hard shell because they know that advocating change or new ideas will not be universally popular. They need to promote necessary change and manage any resistance, prioritising the changes that will have maximum impact.

An effective leader will know how to develop a thick skin in order to implement new ways of doing things or champion a cause.

Leaders with a hard shell or thick skin are not crushed by criticism and can weather detractors and storms. They can handle adversity, push through challenges, and continue to lead in the midst of difficult situations.


4, A turtle knows that slow and steady wins the race

Savvy leaders know that new ideas take time to implement, and progress is not seen overnight. It takes years to make an overnight success!

Effective organisational transformations require long periods of time and constant effort. The most simplified plan of any school demands at least a year to analyse, plan, and implement.

Challenging the system means you are committed to the long haul. It can take at least five years to engage a school’s community, change its culture and improve its teaching – and research shows the most successful leaders are “architects” who stay the distance (Hill et al, 2016). Evolution is much better than revolution.

For a turtle leader, each day is only one small step in a much longer journey because they think long-term.


5, A turtle is patient and will wait for the right moment to feed or move

Some ideas are worth sitting on and implementing when the time is right.

Leading effectively, especially during a crisis, takes patience. Those who favour quick fixes can't wait for strategies to take hold, but the wise leader plans and chooses the right time to make a change.

Successful schools grow and change over time and staff change and adapt at different speeds, so grow your team and encourage them to practise patience themselves.


6, A turtle lays a lot of eggs

Turtles can lay between three and 200 eggs in one nest; some survive, some mature. School leaders might have a clutch of ideas but not all of them will make it. Some of them will fall on fertile ground, grow and mature into exciting projects but quite a few will fall on infertile ground and waste away. You might have some of the best ideas around but can’t get anyone to buy-in to them.

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas! Turtle leaders are open to new ideas themselves and alternative ways of thinking. Every staff member brings a unique perspective to the table, and that is something to take advantage of.


7, A turtle has a clear sense of direction

When you can't see the finish line, let purpose be your guide. Turtles have an innate sense of direction and will go over, under or around an obstacle.

Effective leaders have a clear sense of where they are going and find ways of overcoming things in their way.

There might be bumps, potholes or roadblocks but they have their compass and find a way. Distractions, emergencies and new opportunities might pull leaders in different directions, but they navigate stormy waters and follow-through on their vision to get where they are going. They are also open to alternate journeys that might take the school to better “feeding grounds”.


8, A turtle lives mostly in water

Turtles spend most of their lives in water. Although they are excellent swimmers and spend several hours underwater, they need to come up to the surface to breathe air. They also need to sunbathe.

Elsewhere, leaders are often “in at the deep end” and have to adapt to changing conditions but they also remember to “come up for air” in order to survive. This means they look after their wellbeing, aim for balance, and take time to rest on the beach.


9, A turtle has lots of predators

Regardless of their tough shells, turtles have several predators. People in leadership positions are aware that there will always be those that don't want them “in charge” so they keep an eye on their environment, gather intelligence, look out for changes, and try to build supportive teams and networks.

Turtle leaders foster open and honest communication with those who challenge them and build strong relationships. They see their school team operating as a mosaic whose unique strengths and differences convert into a powerful united force.


10, A turtle is determined

Turtles don't give up. Sea turtles keep on pushing toward the shoreline after hatching and in the same way turtle leaders keep pushing until they reach their goals. They take the plunge when they have to. Turtles and turtle leaders don’t let the fear of what might stand between them and the sea stop them from pushing forward. They have the courage to move forward and embrace uncertainties in order to hit their goal. Leaders may have to run towards dangerous situations.


11, A turtle is forward-looking

Turtles must look forward because they don't really have any other choice. For progress to happen, although leaders must have sufficient time for reflection and analysis, they don't look back but look ahead and keep themselves forward-focused. Yes, they learn from their past, but they don't spend a long-time getting distracted by “what-ifs”.


12, A turtle has to step outside of its comfort zone

When a sea turtle hatches, its first obstacle involves digging up through the sand so it can reach the surface. Then these extremely vulnerable creatures must crawl through the sand without any help to the ocean, avoiding predators. Just like a sea turtle’s journey, a turtle leader must leave their comfort zone and fight through forbidding terrains and fight through their vulnerabilities.


And finally…

Turtle leaders have instincts that are second to none and their determination is fierce. They have to dig themselves out of a hole they didn't dig and they have to stick their necks out to get where they are going.

Turtles are low to the ground and feel the vibrations of all that’s around them.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.com and read his previous best practice articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-dabell


Further information & resources

  • Hill et al: The one type of leader who can turn around a failing school, Harvard Business Review, October 2016: http://bit.ly/2l6orQM


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