What school leaders can learn from Stoic philosophy

Written by: Jim Mepham | Published:
Marcus Aurelius (121-180) at the Campidoglio in Rome, Italy. The Roman emperor was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity (image: Adobe Stock)
An excellent article. I was a head for 18 years and concur wholeheartedly with Jim. Don't be put ...

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From being values-driven and promoting mental fortitude to embracing uncertainty and being patient, primary headteacher Jim Mepham puts forward his case for how Stoic philosophy can transform the leadership of your school

When I first became a headteacher, 14 years ago, I thought that I had a clear grasp of the requirements, skills and duties of headship.

Headteachers lead and manage the curriculum, school standards, including achievement and progress, the budget, the quality of learning and provision, staffing, pupil welfare, safeguarding, community cohesion, to name just a few things.

When the National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers came out in January 2015 (since replaced by the Headteachers’ Standards – DfE, 2020), I prided myself on being able to tick most of the boxes.

To anyone now wishing to apply for their first headship position, I would say that being a headteacher is about much more than box-ticking, skills and duties.

It is overwhelmingly concerned with problem-solving, managing relationships, resolving conflicts and dilemmas, making ethical and philosophical decisions and, more than ever, it is about the management of oneself. Before we can hope to lead others and influence others, we need to work on ourselves.

This article uses Stoic philosophy – not to be confused with the simplistic stiff upper lip definition of Stoicism – as a useful leadership tool to use in what are becoming ever more uncertain times. I have used some of the key aspects of Stoic Philosophy, practised by thinkers like Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and applied them to my own thinking about leadership.

I hasten to add that you do not have to subscribe to the views of these ancient bearded philosophers to acknowledge that they may have some powerful insights that can help us develop our school leadership qualities and behaviours.

What can you control?

“It is not what happens to you that matters, but how you react.” (Epictetus)

As leaders, worry only about the things under your control. The angry outburst of a child at your office door, the frustrated parent at the school gate, the R rate in the community, the contradictory messages from the government – all these are essentially beyond your control. Returning to this question of control can help you gain perspective and develop self-awareness.

Headteachers are notoriously ambitious and strive for successes which are sometimes unachievable.

For years, I struggled with anxiety over some children who were “only” achieving 91 per cent school attendance until my perspective changed. I realised that the attendance of these children, many from vulnerable families, could be perceived quite differently. In fact, 91 per cent was a remarkable achievement. Considering the challenges these families faced, attendance could well have been at 50 per cent. Our perspectives really matter.

Practical implications for leaders: Develop the right mindset. This requires time, experience, professional conversations with others, emotional insight and empathy.

Leaders need mental fortitude

There are clearly many things over which we have only partial control and influence but, for Stoics, it is our perceptions and perspectives that are fundamental. As headteachers, much of our working lives are immersed in relationships and interactions with staff, children and parents. These exchanges and interactions often involve conflicts, negotiations and, sometimes, challenges. These all have emotional consequences. Mental fortitude is an essential character trait for all headteachers.

Stoicism does not encourage us as leaders to be unemotional, but to be mentally and psychologically prepared. For Stoics, good leadership means the use of good judgement, not acting rashly and ensuring that your emotions fall in line with your values.

Practical implications for leaders: Develop an understanding of conflict resolution and strategies and techniques for solving problems, training in critical thinking and emotional intelligence.

Leaders need to be values-driven

For Stoics, leaders need to be driven by values (which they called virtues). For the Stoics, these were the virtues of reason, courage, temperance (self-control) and justice. As headteachers, we are constantly blown off course and distracted by circumstantial and management issues, but it is really our core values, our vision and our goals that matter most. We need to lead through and exemplify our values, to act as a role model for others, and to learn from other role models.

One view of a successful headteacher is someone who is decisive, proactive and purposeful. These are all good qualities. However, my view is that headteachers also need to be philosophical and make considered decisions based on reflection, introspection and their deeply held values. This may take time and deliberation.

Successful headship requires the courage to make challenging decisions, the ability to remain calm under pressure, and a commitment to justice and fairness to ensure staff and pupils’ rights, responsibilities and opportunities are upheld and provided.

Headteachers need to be reflective thinkers and rationalise and evaluate decisions and actions. Stoics like Marcus Aurelius are famous for writing journals. In the Meditations, Aurelius would reflect on and evaluate his day on a habitual basis: What went well today? What could I improve? What did I learn? (see 2003).

In an article published by the Chartered College of Teaching, Lucy Kelly (2020) quotes evidential findings from the Teaching Wellbeing Index that diary-writing has proved to be a positive tool which aids reflection and wellbeing.

Practical implications for leaders: Develop an honest, personal evaluation of the role. We do not have to write journals at the end of each day, but there are many useful tools that can help us guide our thinking. The Edward De Bono thinking programme including the Six Thinking Hats (1999) is one such technique that continues to be used as an effective leadership tool. There are many others.

Leaders should embrace uncertainty

Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty. For Stoics, life is rooted in uncertainty and unpredictability. We should not be surprised by events, problems or misfortunes. Leaders need to be prepared, flexible and adaptable, and anticipate challenges. Before embarking on a new project, an INSET day, an EHCP meeting, leaders should prepare themselves by asking themselves: What could go wrong here? What problems or challenges might there be?

This is not a strategy of low expectation, but rather one that seeks to prepare and anticipate “emotionally” before embarking on changes.

When we embark on our three-year School Development plans, we need to remind ourselves to build flexibility into these plans. We will need to adapt, improvise and constantly review our plans – because everything changes all the time.

Practical implications for leaders: The need for developing strategies for change management, the ability to adapt, as well as the courage to decide what to dump, ditch or delegate.

Leaders need to learn to appreciate

For the Stoics, appreciation is fundamental. It is important to appreciate what we have in our personal lives as well as our working lives. As leaders, it is useful to remind ourselves of the things we appreciate about our schools, pupils and colleagues, our community, achievements and developments that we have contributed to and are part of. Stoics emphasise the central role of gratitude. We need be thankful for what we have personally, and show gratitude to those who have helped us. We need to learn to appreciate ourselves and make time and space for ourselves to reflect and evaluate our leadership roles.

Practical implications for leaders: We should develop school cultures that are underpinned by transparency, opportunities for feedback and coaching. Staff and pupils should be appreciated and their talents fostered.

Leaders need patience

The world is changing constantly, and patience is invaluable. There will be people (staff, children, governors, parents) who will test your tolerance and patience as leaders. To remain calm and positive and to be resilient are important qualities. Empathetic skills, communication skills and perspective can help navigate day-to-day interactions with people.

Practical implications for leaders: We should model patience and tolerance, and embed these qualities in school culture, codes of conduct and school values.

Leaders look for teachable moments

For Stoics, great leaders take ordinary, complex or difficult situations and turn them into something. Leaders turn obstacles into leadership opportunities for others. It is what they mean when they say the obstacle is the way – where there are obstacles, problems and difficulties, it is important to look for learning solutions. It is not so much about resigning yourself to situations, but making the best of them, not avoiding problems but embracing challenges and learning from them. We are very good at encouraging pupils to do this but perhaps more reluctant to do this as leaders.

Practical implications for leaders: We should look for opportunities to learn from experiences and difficulties. It requires leaders to step back and look at things differently, to be analytical, to share problems with colleagues and approach leadership with an outlook of enquiry. We all need to be part of a “learning community”.

Ego is the enemy

As leaders, we will not be capable of taking or receiving feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from others. Without an accurate understanding of ourselves, our strengths, capabilities and weaknesses, we will be unable to reach, motivate or lead others. This is why all headteachers can really benefit from good quality coaching.

The expectations of headteachers today can sometimes seem unachievable. After 14 years of headship, it sometimes seems to me that to be a successful headteacher is to be superhuman! We need to remember that humility and self-awareness are where true strength lies. For Stoics, even when we receive praise, we are not everything. We are ordinary. We are simply doing our job to the best of our ability.

Practical implications for leaders: We should seek to learn from others, seek feedback, embrace appraisal, pursue professional development and read widely. Most of all, of course, we need to try to be authentic and true to our values.

  • Jim Mepham has been a primary school headteacher for 12 years and has worked in education for 30 years.

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An excellent article. I was a head for 18 years and concur wholeheartedly with Jim. Don't be put off by the label Stoicism, this article skilfully and concisely explains crucial universal truths about school leadership regardless of which regime we are under or what context our school is in.
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