The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enhancing professionalism in education since 1965

What makes a good leader?

The wisdom of continual learning is key to educational leadership

Bruce Robertson

In June 2015, I was interviewed by my local authority for the national Into Headship programme. At that time, I had limited experience of educational leadership literature and believed that experience and learning from others were more important. I also believed that many of the principles of good leadership could be learned from the popular television series Game of Thrones. This belief formed the basis of my presentation to the interview panel, which included a discussion of the following questions (asked by Tywin Lannister of the young king-to-be, Tommen): “What makes a good king?” and “What is a good king’s single most important quality?” (To be clear: I wasn’t suggesting that the position of headteacher is equivalent to that of king! Rather, I was using this example to consider the qualities of a good leader.)

Returning to the questions, after considering and then dismissing different answers, king-to-be Tommen decided that the single most important quality in a good king is “wisdom”, i.e. recognising what you know and what you don’t, where you are strong and where you are less so, and ensuring that you seek advice and support from others. Thinking back to the time of my interview, if I compare myself as a leader now to where I was then, the single most important change as a result of the Into Headship programme is that I believe I have become wiser.

Participating in Into Headship has changed me – I now think differently and I do things differently. A key change has been in the amount of time that I spend reading. I have never been much of a reader, but Into Headship has changed that. Over the 18 months of the programme, I read a lot. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I read more books and journal articles in the 18 months of the programme than I had in the previous 18 years! And the most surprising thing for me? I enjoyed it. Over the course of the programme, I found myself getting up an hour earlier to read (and that is surprising, because I’ve never been a “morning person”), and while I’ve not agreed with everything I’ve read, I have taken time to think about it and to discuss it with other people. By spending more time reading, I have become more confident in my beliefs about certain things and I have changed my mind about others.

One significant change that has come about through reading relates to my understanding of the purpose of educational leadership. There are many different leadership models out there and Into Headship has been very useful in helping me to consider a wide variety of these in detail. From this, I have come to believe that educational leadership is first and foremost about leadership of learning, i.e. learning-centred leadership. This is what sets educational leadership apart from leadership in other fields. The key purpose of leadership in schools is to build a culture of learning, with the principal objective of making teaching and learning better (no matter how good it is already).

In leading the organisation, whenever there is a decision to be made, a key question should be: will this support teaching and learning improvement?

A challenge for me has been to consider how the actions of the headteacher can make a difference to student learning

However, having come to this conclusion, a challenge for me has been to consider how the actions of the headteacher can make a difference to student learning. Clearly, teachers and students are able to directly affect teaching and learning in lessons but with headteachers typically absent from this environment how are they able to make a difference?

Into Headship has taught me that the key to this is to understand the concept of indirect influence: focusing your own work to ensure that everything about the design of the school and the way that people spend their time is aligned to teaching and learning improvement. Building teams and developing and motivating staff should be key drivers for a headteacher and it is on these activities that I now strive to spend most of my time.

Returning to my Into Headship interview, do I still believe that principles of good leadership can be learned from Game of Thrones? As part of that interview, I discussed Jon Snow who (spoiler alert!) knew a lot about what needed to be done, but who forgot to take key people with him, and paid a heavy price for that.

Into Headship has taught me a lot about what needs to be done and, just as importantly, about how to take people with you in order to achieve it. It has taught me to be wise in the widest sense – strategically, politically and emotionally. I believe that I am a better leader for it and that, consequently, teaching and learning in my school is better as a result, which for me is the key measure. But, of course, learning is never-ending, so I’m going to keep on reading, keep on talking and keep on listening. And, yes, I’m going to keep on watching Game of Thrones.


Bruce is Depute Headteacher (Teaching and Learning) at Eyemouth High School in the Scottish Borders and has been in post for five years. Bruce completed the Into Headship programme through the University of Edinburgh in June 2017.

Teaching Scotland

Sign-up to our newsletter

Editor contact: Evelyn Wilkins

Advertise with us