Lessons in Leadership - To Rule or Relate?


Does a leader in education need more empathy or authority?

A recent Twitter poll showed 81% of voters believed empathy to be the more important trait.

This is hardly surprising.The media are consistent in their message that more teachers are quitting than ever; top reasons being the ever-increasing workload, lack of credibility received by the profession and the ever-shifting goalposts.Teachers want leaders who show understanding at the yet-another-later-than-planned-twilight meeting, rather than simply printing more soulless “because I say so” jobs onto our endless to-do lists.

Excellent leaders know that, to have the backing of your team, you need empathy; we need to feel that you’ve walked in our shoes and you remember how tough it was on the frontline.We’ll be much more likely to get behind your initiatives if we believe you truly have the interests of your students (and staff) at heart – we’ll be loyal, we’ll be your shipmates, and we’ll work with you to steady the ship through rough waters.

But a ship needs a captain to navigate.Is it possible to show complete empathy to an already over-worked team, and continue to ask for more?Even if “more” is what you need to reach the destination?

Only 19% of voters potentially recognised that actually making the tough decisions in the first place, and standing by them, had more value in leadership than having to consider the impact on every single party affected.After all, being appreciative of others is all very well, but how would we ever move forward if every decision had to reflect benefit to everyone – opinions of students, parents, staff and stakeholders.

We can probably recognise the empathisers; they want to be your friend, they’ll listen to your classroom woes and teaching angst, they give you understanding smiles in the corridor.But with empathy can come indecisiveness, uncertainty, worry.The Holy Grail of teaching is time; how on earth do they have time to consider every possible outcome of every single decision?

And likewise, the authoritarians; leaping into definitive action when you get the dreaded “call”, moving quickly and decisively to rectify issues, one eye on the vision and another on student outcomes, doing everything in their power to hit the target.But with authority can come arrogance, aggression, abruptness.Aren’t these the exact qualities that we shun as we strive to be understanding of our students’ needs?

Ah, and so we come full circle.

Of course, the answer is that a true leader will have both traits. Empathy and authority are much the Ying and Yang of leadership; there will be times when one is needed more than the other, but both opposing forces must exist, in harmony.For a successful journey, the crew must work together to sail the vessel, but the captain must set the direction.

Our greatest leaders know that neither empathyor authority are as important as having the courage to know, in the moment,which to use.

Author Profile

Katy Skivington

Katy Skivington

Associate Senior Leader, specialising in Performing Arts, Leadership and Coaching

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