Why your interpersonal skills will define you as a leader

June 27, 2017
James Bowen

James Bowen

Director, NAHT Edge

Ask anyone to talk about a memorable school leader that they have worked with and it is unlikely they will speak about their wonderful school improvement plans or their ability to plan a staff meeting.

This blog is about relating to others, one of our middle leadership competencies. Get a quick insight into our competency framework with our Leadership Diagnostic.

This is not to suggest technical skills are not important, far from it. Although very necessary, they are not sufficient in isolation when it comes to truly great leadership.

It is your interpersonal skills and your ability to relate to others that will determine how successful a leader you become. You can be the most knowledgeable leader and educator in the world, but if you are unable to interact well with those around you, especially those in your team, you are unlikely to be effective in your role.

So what is it that great leaders do in order to build strong professional relationships with those around them?

Trust and honesty

Firstly, they understand the importance of trust and actively build trust with their colleagues in a variety of ways. For example, they make sure that they do what they say they are going to do. They don't make unrealistic promises that they can't keep.

They are also prepared to be unwaveringly honest with colleagues, especially when holding them to account. While people may not enjoy hearing such difficult messages, they will respect your honesty.

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Great leaders are selfless leaders. When things are going well they are quick to share the credit. They will point to everyone else in the team before taking any credit themselves.

However, when things go wrong they will be quick to step up and take responsibility, even if the mistake or situation was no fault of their own. This is not easy to do, and in many ways goes against our natural instincts, but brilliant leaders know it is an essential part of their role.

Use of praise

They understand the power and importance of appreciation. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't like to feel appreciated or to hear those two simple words 'thank you'. However, in the busy life of a school leader it is all too easy to forget to thank colleagues for going the extra mile, which we know they so often do.

Great leaders make a point of noticing and publicly acknowledging the work of others. By doing this, you are communicating that you value the work of your colleagues and you strengthen your relationships with them.


Instilling confidence

Great leaders communicate a clear message that they believe in the people they lead. This not only gives the team confidence, but encourages them to try new ideas, take risks and innovate.

Leaders provide opportunities for others to 'step up' but provide a safety net too for when things don't go according to plan.

Even when addressing underperformance, the conversations they have with colleagues are underpinned by a belief that, with the right support, everyone can improve and succeed.


It’s hard to achieve this balance, but great leaders understand the importance of looking after themselves. They know that they won't be the best leader they can be if they are burnt out and exhausted.

They keep a close eye on their own wellbeing and take proactive steps to look after themselves. This includes being prepared to ask for help when they need it.

Finally, great leaders are prepared to cut themselves some slack. They know they are not super-human and that like everyone else, they will make mistakes from time to time. They don't dwell on mistakes but look to learn from them and then move on.

Mastery of these different skills, often disparagingly referred to as being the 'soft skills' of leadership, make a truly effective leader.

Besides, there is nothing soft about having to challenge colleagues to move out of their comfort zone, or in tackling difficult conversations that all leaders have to have.

Yet we shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming that these are simply innate personality traits that you either have or don't have. As with the technical aspects of the role, leaders can learn, develop and refine these skills to become the kind of school leader their colleagues and students will always remember.

Leadership competencies is one of the evidence-informed topics explored on our Expert Middle Leaders programme (formerly called Teaching Leaders). Follow the link to the webpage or fill out an enquiry form to find out more about our two-year fully-funded training programme.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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