Lions and lambs

A Journey for new school leaders

Taking up a principal’s role for the first time – or taking over at a new school – is tough for anyone. Ciaran McMahon suggests that you have to adjust, be patient, listen, get the right people on your side and acquire “the knowledge”, and thinks they should be more like lambs than lions.

Acquiring the knowledge

Becoming a new head requires developing an awareness of realities in the new work environment to avoid uncertainty. This is essential for survival – let alone success!  Identifying what one needs to know early on is key to a successful start. On entering a new work environment one must consider its dynamics and relationships if a positive start is to be achieved. Knowledge is the key to unlocking success in this particular instance. How to gain this knowledge is very much dependent on the individual but there is guidance to be found in the leadership literature.

The value of the lamb

The writing of Jerome Murphy is particularly relevant when discussing new roles for school leaders and lends itself well to the discussion of new principal appointments. He presents a model of leadership that challenges previously held beliefs that leadership has to be lionised and heroic. He regards the model of “the leader as a lion” as unrealistic as it isolates the leader from other teacher colleagues.  It encourages the suggestion of an “all knowing presence” that can devalue competence, cooperation and collaboration of others. A bad start for any new principal. He advocates instead an unheroic approach to leadership that encourages collegiality by the very fact it is less forceful and aggressive. As he puts it, Leaders are quiet lambs as much as roaring lions (Jerome T. Murphy, 2013)

The most knowledgeable constituents of any school organisation are its teachers. Successful school leaders are the ones who recognise this and tap into this expertise with a congenial style of leadership that asks questions of those best equipped to answer. Principal appointees to schools have to look no further than their teachers for the necessary knowledge to plot a directional course for the school organisation.


Leaders can often achieve results by acting like followers (Murphy, 2013).

Todd Whitaker (2015) in discussing the same topic emphasises the importance of pursuing feedback from others. The right feedback. If school leaders want to find out how things are going in their schools, he argues, they should ask their best teachers.

These are the teachers who want the school to succeed and also, crucially, they want the leader to succeed. Therefore, new principals must quickly identify who their best teachers are, build trusting work relationships with them and include them in their decision making. Positive staff members provide momentum and direction for a school (Whitaker, 2015).


Avoid the boxing ring

Equally, Whitaker points out the need to identify difficult or negative teaching personalities. Do not engage them, is the advice. “Do not climb into the boxing rings into which they invite you”. The thinking here is that the ensuing bouts with negative contributors may divert you from your previously plotted course. Sufficient for now to know who they are. How will you recognise them? They are usually the ones who disagree with anything and everything new.

Making decisions

The wiser alternative, he suggests, is to “identify your good people and make decisions involving them”. These are the teachers who will lead you to safe harbour. Resistance and negativity has always been present in some form in staff cultures and it is hugely important for new principal appointees not to personalise it, but merely acknowledge that it exists for now. Let your knowledge be your strength in your new role.

Be a lamb with the heart of a lion!


Ciaran McMahon is the former Principal of Scoil Bhride, Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Ireland

Read more by Ciaran in ITM:

The case for early leadership training

Teachers as leaders



Feature Image: Una and the Lion  Briton Rivière (1840 – 1920)

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