Review by Duncan Spalding

Executive headteacher, Aylsham Learning Federation, Norfolk

6 Jul 2019, 5:00


Imperfect Leadership

By Steve Munby


Crown House Publishing


The prevailing narrative about school leadership in England has often been centred on talk of transformational leaders, superheads, and in extreme cases, of leadership cloning.

Steve Munby’s book begins from the perspective that no leader is perfect, and nor should they strive to be. At Imperfect Leadership’s heart is the strong conviction that leadership should be exercised with authenticity, integrity and moral purpose.

This is an incredibly important and timely book and one that should be read by anyone involved in leading education.

This reflective leadership memoir charts Munby’s leadership journey from a somewhat inauspicious start as a classroom teacher in Birmingham in 1980, to educational advisor, director of education and lifelong learning in Knowsley, chief executive of the National College of School Leadership (NCSL), then of an international education trust, right up to the present day as a self-employed consultant, speaker and visiting professor.

The book begins with Munby’s appointment as chief executive at NCSL and explores in detail the educational and political landscape since 2005. Munby chose this time period because he gave a keynote speech on educational leadership every year from 2005 to 2017 and these form the centrepiece of each chapter.

Munby’s fascinating reflections are drawn from working at the heart of the national education landscape, shaping school leadership development programmes for England, whilst enjoying the independence that running an arms-length body such as the NCSL afforded

It is clear that his speeches are important sources of reflection to him, and a reminder to all educational leaders of what our core mission should be

Imperfect Leadership is multi-layered. Each chapter reflects on Munby’s professional journey and explores crucial themes in educational leadership and offers a revealing insight into how his leadership thinking has changed or remained consistent over time. It is interesting, for example, to see how his views on the need for Ofsted to hold schools to account remain constant while his perspective on the shape and high-stakes nature of that accountability has shifted significantly.

Each chapter is a new year, with the transcript of a carefully crafted keynote speech made at the time as the theme. The speech is foregrounded by the thematic concerns of each chapter and often illuminated further by entries from Munby’s personal diaries. It is clear that his speeches are important sources of reflection to him, and a reminder to all educational leaders of what our core mission should be.

Written with warmth, wit, humility and optimism, the speeches are always a mix of interesting stories, deep reflections on leadership, and exhortations to do the right thing by our students and colleagues. For those who lived through these years as a school leader I think they will be particularly resonant; for those new to leadership they should provide a valuable source of reflection on the kind of leader one aspires to be. The speeches are of their time but still profoundly relevant.

Munby constantly explores his thinking and tries to refine his understanding of different facets of leadership – sometimes resulting in a dizzying profusion of different words acting as a prefix to the word leadership. His chapter on ethical leadership resonates particularly; it asks searching questions about the sustainability of the current accountability culture and the pressure it places on leaders in terms of recruitment, retention and ethical behaviour.

Munby is at his best when he explores the relationship between power and love in leadership in all its imperfect complexity, drawing upon the words of Martin Luther King. Keeping power and love in balance helps us to lead wisely with clarity, compassion, challenge and care, and Munby makes a compelling case for strong mentors to help us to find the wisdom to strike the right balance.

The book finishes with four questions for leaders to ask themselves when they leave their current role. In relation to Munby’s own leadership I would venture that the answer to all four would be a resounding “yes”, despite all of the imperfections he reveals. I would hope for a similar affirmative clean sweep when my time comes to move on. Reading and reflecting on Imperfect Leadership is certainly a helpful step in the right direction.

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