Andrew Morrish portrait

Written by Andrew Morrish

Andrew is a former headteacher and founder trust CEO. He has also been an NLE, inspector, LA adviser, chair of governors, and trustee, so he has seen it from all angles. Andrew is now Director of Makana Leadership Ltd, a consultancy he founded in 2020, and author of The Art of Standing Out (John Catt). Andrew also co-founded Headrest during the pandemic, a free wellbeing support service for headteachers.

One of the greatest challenges during my two decades as a headteacher was trying to build a culture of belonging. 

For many schools, this becomes the holy grail. It’s easy to understand why. Research tells us that if staff feel isolated and vulnerable at work – that they feel as if they don’t belong – they are more likely to lack engagement, motivation, and commitment. As a result, productivity declines, and we see this often in the lowest performing schools. On the flip side, where there is a strong culture of relational trust for example, the likelihood of this impacting positively on student outcomes is significantly higher.

Leading change must always lead to impact (in this case a culture of belonging). Just because you think you are going about your business of leading, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are changing anything. Leadership without impact is not leadership at all. It’s just you being busy. 

So in order for change to lead to meaningful impact, it needs to be done on purpose. It also needs to be done from purpose. The two are very different. Let’s see how.

When we lead from purpose, we do so authentically from a position of strength. The main source of that strength comes from within; our core values and beliefs – the stuff that drives and motivates us. These are the things that we choose to do, not because we have to, but because we want to.  These beliefs also determine whether staff are more likely to feel as if they identify with you and the team, department, phase (or school even) that you lead. 

In order to lead successfully you need to know that everything starts and ends with you. Who you are, what you believe in, and why you do the things you do. This is at the heart of what it means to lead from purpose.

When we lead on purpose, we do so deliberately, with accuracy, and care. We’ll take both of these in turn in a moment. First though, we need to appreciate that leadership – authentic and purposeful leadership in particular – is too important to lead to chance. It doesn’t just happen. We need to plan for it and to think deeply about when, where, and how it happens. 

It’s a bit like going shopping. You have to know what it is you need to buy (make a list), and then when you’ve bought it you then need to know how best to combine them in order to turn the items into something meaningful (i.e. meals). This is the whole point of doing the weekly shop –  to keep yourself and others sufficiently nourished. Leading is no different. 

The process of shopping (as with leading) is merely a means to an end. It needs to lead to something. And if we just left it to chance, who knows what we’ll up with. We most likely won’t starve, but it will hardly be enriching and enticing. 

When planning to lead well, leaders need to take care when thinking about their actions and behaviours. Careful leaders are ethical leaders, and – as would be expected – care passionately about the things they believe in. More importantly, they care passionately about the beliefs of others in a diverse workplace. 

If we do this all of the time, consistently, constantly, and convincingly (my three habits of authentic leaders) chances are these behaviours will become normalised. They become habits. Habits help us ensure that we do things automatically and precisely. They are done right each time, without thinking, such as driving to work, talking to a parent, or giving feedback to a pupil. 

Precision is essential but only if it’s accurate, for it is this that ensures we are being precise about the right things. It’s accuracy over precision every time. 

You can be as precise as you want about sticking meticulously to the speed limit or the ingredients in your recipe. But if you are heading in the wrong direction, or adding salt instead of sugar, then you won’t achieve much. 

Accurate leaders do the right things on purpose, and from purpose. 

Authentic leaders are accurate leaders because it is done with care. They know that people rarely succeed unless there is purpose behind their actions. It is this sense of purpose – and associated success – that is the bedrock to belonging.

Success is the residue of belonging. It’s what’s left behind long after everyone has gone home. It sticks and lingers and is what makes people keep coming back for more. Success is permanent. 

And by success, I don’t mean Ofsted banners outside the school gates, or fancy logos on headed paper. I mean a true sense of deep accomplishment and belonging where self meets the world, the interface of which we call the workplace. 

It is of course the place where young people to go to learn, but it’s also the place where we, as adults work. It’s where we spend most of our waking moments, so it makes sense to at least feel as if we belong there. 

As poet and philosopher David Whyte says (quoting Blake’s words), “To have a firm persuasion in our work – to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time – is one of the great triumphs of human existence.”  

It is also one of the greatest challenges of school leadership. Known strategies such as allyship, empowerment and mentorship all make for great starts. In my new book, The Authentic Leader, I tell the inspiring true story of Dikgang Moseneke, a man who knew all about the value of these. But as Dikgang reminds us, unless all of these things are done through ‘collective agency’, on and from purpose, we may end up falling short when it comes to providing one of the most fundamental human needs: belonging.