We don’t need another hero

Hannah Wilson asked a question on Twitter recently about debunking headship myths.  The thread that followed was fascinating and enlightening.  Of all the inspirational comments posted, those relating to vulnerability and emotion stayed with me.  Many people who contributed to the debate agreed that the notion of an infallible, ‘hero’ head was damaging to the profession, unhelpful to aspiring leaders and has personal costs.  For me, the debate comes backs to a topic that continues to fascinate me – that of emotion display.

I have always been interested in the emotional display of a headteacher.  Mainly because I want to be a headteacher; one who is not afraid of showing emotion. To me, emotions reveal your values and connect you with others on a very human level.  And yet so often, headteachers choose to keep emotions under-wraps, hidden away, denied or disowned like an embarrassing uncle.

Why is there so much pressure to suppress emotion in public life? What are we all so afraid of?  The problem is the context.  Headteachers are operating within a world where the primacy of rationality is a historical, persistent and powerful rhetoric.  As a result, some are struggling to reconcile who they are as a human being with the unrealistic and ‘heroic’ expectations of a headteacher.

In this world of high accountability, reason is pitched as a polarity to passion, with rationality enthroned as God-like and passion relegated as unreliable and primitive.  We may have hoped to have progressed from classical Greece – where the separation of emotion and reason was culturally established; or become more sophisticated than the fervent believers of medieval religious dogma – where the duality was embedded.  We may even have wished to be more nuanced than Enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes and Kant who continued to perpetuate the difference, but sometimes I don’t think we’ve come very far forward at all.  Emotion remains the beggar waiting for scraps at the door.

Reason and rationality are regarded as being the origins of calculated decision-making and therefore retain primacy in school leadership.  Attempts at being emotional are sometimes reduced to a competency approach to be ‘ticked off’.  I’m a supporter of headteachers who want to be more emotionally intelligent, but completing an audit of emotional skills and then setting yourself emotional targets is just about the most rational thing you can do.  Putting your emotion in a straight-jacket won’t help you connect with others.

In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume puts forward that reason is passion’s slave. This appeals to me.  I like to see the duality in these terms, with emotion having primacy.  The Scottish philosopher, John MacMurray, like Hume, believed that emotion determines the substance of reason and provides its nourishment and sustenance.  He believes that to be truly human, one must prioritise emotion over reason.  This is what resonates the most with me as an aspiring headteacher; I want to be ‘truly human’ and to allow emotion to be a trusted addition to my leadership repertoire, perhaps even be the first thing on which I would draw in the face of challenge.

Resonant though this may be to me, I know headteachers who would disagree.  They would not prioritise emotion, would not give emotion a privileged place of trust; would instead approach it with suspicion and cynicism.  Some headteachers see emotion as being at war with reason, or at best as a prop for reason, rather than equitable to it, or heaven forbid – elevated above it.

I believe in the agential power of headteachers to dictate what Arlie Hochschild calls the ‘feeling rules’ of their organisation.  Andy Hargreaves agrees (Hargreaves has written a great deal on this topic and I am a huge fan – show me another academic that writes in such an accessible way) and says that we must acknowledge that wielding power in leadership is always an emotionally political practice. Hargreaves sees leaders as creators of conditions that promote emotional understanding or misunderstanding.  Of course, this places considerable pressure on headteachers to recognise these conditions and to see themselves as responsible not only for the academic achievement of students, but for the emotional experiences of everyone in the school community.  It’s a huge ask. And a frightening prospect for many.  Perhaps it’s no wonder we have a headteacher recruitment crisis, when you look at the role through this lens.

What we need to do is give headteachers the opportunity to talk, with immunity, about their emotional experiences as leaders. If we don’t, there is a risk that the current educational context of high accountability will create a disenchanted vision of ‘specialists without spirit’ (Weber, 1930).  Even if space is created for headteachers to talk about emotion, casting off the culturally-embedded, ‘expected’ performance of ‘hero-head’, involves risk and requires courage.  The current accountability context that values output rather than belief creates a climate of risk within which headteachers are more likely to capitulate to the performance, than to resist.  Accounts of successive headteachers walked off the premises is an all-too-frequent feature of the educational landscape today.  Asking headteachers to be courageous about emotion in that environment is tough.  The only way to achieve that degree of bravery, in my opinion, is moral purpose – a critical antecedent for a sense of authenticity that has the potential to help headteachers find the necessary courage.  I’m aware that it’s very easy to say, and much less easy to do.

If and when I am one day a headteacher, I want to be free to be my imperfect self. Megan Crawford argues that emotions reveal our values; they inhabit us and construct our identities because they are what is most real to us at any given moment. This resonates with me so much. I cannot separate myself from my emotional core, particularly in a professional capacity.

I am advocating a personal, inherently emotional, but courageous approach to leadership, where headteachers write their own script.  The educational context is a stage, on which leaders should embrace emotion not as thwarting, but as aiding; not as an obstacle but as an opportunity; not as wearing borrowed robes, but as a full expression of self.


3 thoughts on “We don’t need another hero”

  1. Great post, Carly, which made me think, as the best blogs do!

    I consider myself a fairly emotional person, and I haven’t usually had any problem displaying my emotions, including during my ten years of headship. But I would say that balance is important, as we are rational beings too, and leadership sometimes requires us to get our emotions under control so that we can do what has to be done – which can be difficult at times. So I think I would say don’t deny your emotions, use them to inform your leadership, but draw on your rationality too.

    As an example, I knew that in my final full school assembly, when I left headship, I would be tearful, and I didn’t worry about that – to an extent I think the school community expected it, and would have been a bit disappointed if I hadn’t been, rather than being embarrassed that I was! But I also knew that I wanted to be able to get my emotions under control so that I could say what I wanted to say without turning into a blubbering, incoherent wreck! And I’m proud that I managed it.

    So with reason and emotion – as with most things, in my experience – you need both, and a balance between them – x + y rather than x or y.

    Thanks again for writing and sharing the post. I enjoyed the Twitter discussion too!


  2. Hi Carly,
    I agree with everything you have said about emotionality. We ARE emotional beings with rationality too (in the main!) but because of traditional values and nurture it’s perhaps much harder for men to display their emotions (as surely they must feel them) and perhaps more likely that females are trying to suppress them to appear strong. Shame really, that we can’t just feel and be, regardless of role.
    The observer too, should respect any emotionality shown and not see a display as weak when it’s really strong.
    Prsonally, I can’t think of any headtacher of mine who displayed emotion – male or female – so it looks like the role and its preconceived ideals will take a long time to change. Bring it on!


  3. On the first day of my last headship I told a group of parents, known for their aggression & general threatening behaviour that my door was always open but if they shouted at me, I would cry.
    I am an emotional being whose tears can relieve huge stress.
    As Jill says it should be controlled but I could never hide ‘real’ tears. My staff groups across the years understood & were comfortable with it. It’s part of me.
    Great post!


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