Read the transcript of our podcast episode.

Hello Everyone, I am Emese and this is our monthly podcast session. I am super excited, as I have a special guest today who has worked with us from the beginning. Having a long career in education working in academic and executive roles, being the Deputy Chief Executive of the National College for School Leadership, Geoff knows the topic of leadership better than most. I hope you have your coffee ready because it will be worth tuning into the next 15 minutes. Please meet Geoff Southworth.


It is so great to have you here Geoff, let’s start with an introduction on your end.

I started out as a teacher, teaching 5 to 11 year-olds in primary schools.

I soon took on subject leadership roles and then a deputy headship, before becoming headteacher of a school with more than 350 students.

During my spell as headteacher, I became involved in the delivery of management and leadership courses for headteachers, which paved the way for me to become the director of professional development programmes for school leaders at Cambridge University.

Later I became Professor of Education at Reading University, and from there I moved to the newly introduced National College for School Leadership, first as Strategic Director of Research, and later Deputy CEO. The National College was tasked with designing and developing the National Qualification for Headship Programme, which at the time anyone who wanted to be a head had to successfully complete, plus a range of other programmes for subject leaders, and experienced heads. The College was a national organisation and served leadership in 22,000 schools, or about 150,000 individuals. The College itself had a staff of 250. 

Thank you Geoff, truly an amazing journey. After all these years being a leader and working with others, in your opinion, what are the key aspects of a good leader?

Many people have tried to answer that question, and there are thousands of books written about the topic, especially in the business world. Many of the books claim to know the secrets of success, some of them amounting to little more than "Lead as I did and you’ll be great…"

I think there are a few things all leaders need to do. I won’t try to cover everything about being a successful leadership, but the list of characteristics includes:

  • Understanding the context in which you are working: leaders need to be exquisitely sensitive to the contexts in which they work: the people, the organisation’s goals, changes that are needed, retaining what is essential.
  • Communicating: leaders need to talk to their colleagues and followers, explain their plans, set out the goals, objectives and targets, use stories.
  • Leaders must also listen. People like listening leaders: individuals who pay attention to their colleagues and really, actively listen.
  • Know and set out what the organisation is about and trying to achieve: its core purpose, its aims and goals and the changes necessary.
  • Empower teams.
  • Manage their egos and ask for help, acknowledge you do not know all the answers and try to ration the number of times you say “I”. We is often better than I.

Modest leaders can be as successful, if not more successful than individualistic leaders. In Good to Great, Jim Collins studied leaders who had led their organisations from good to great organisations, and a feature of them was their modesty.

  • Develop lots of leaders.
  • Be positive: No one wants to work with, or be led by, someone who is always negative, critical, and offers no hope of success or of the future. Leaders must demonstrate hope and optimism, and sometimes it is unwarranted optimism!

I could go on, but in terms of schools and how headteachers influence what goes on in classrooms, it comes down to three things:

  • Modelling: leading by example
  • Monitoring: knowing what is going on in the organisation, classroom observations, achievement scores, and informal observation and listening including managing by wandering about.
  • Dialogues: talking and listening to others, consulting, noting concerns, talking about improvements identified, progress and successes.


As easy as it might sound when we list all these aspects, I can imagine that there are a lot of challenges working with a team on the actual field. Here at Acasus working on projects where we change the lives of many, there are continuous ups and downs in each project. How can you motivate a team?

By doing much of the above, but also by letting the team get on with the tasks. When you put a team together, provide opportunities for them to work together and ensure they understand what and why they are doing. Then let them get on with it, empower them, let go. Of course, build in time for updates, check on progress towards success indicators and signs of difficulties. And PRAISE. Provide the team with feedback, and praise the team. Don’t just praise individuals, although that is essential, but also praise the team so that their collective endeavours are recognised and you sustain a sense of team.

Thank you for sharing. I think it can be a common mistake to handle a team only as a group of individuals, forgetting that they must learn working together above all to succeed.

Many of our audience would probably like to know how can one grow as a leader?

No one becomes a fully-formed leader when they take on leadership responsibilities. All of us learn to lead, it is a process, not an event, and the best leaders keep on learning to lead. Widening their frames of reference, increasing their skill set, reflecting on their actions as a leader. 

One of the very best leaders I worked with never stopped learning and improving as a leader, even though when we first started working together he was one of the best. He was a restless leader and constantly sought feedback.

Leaders probably go through a few stages of development. As a beginning leader, you know you are a novitiate and it takes a while for the mantle of leadership to fit. For this reason, all new leaders can benefit from having a mentor. I certainly benefitted from having two or three experienced headteachers I could talk to when I first became headteacher. 

Later, a leadership coach can be advantageous. When I was deputy CEO, although I had held leadership positions for some time, I had a coach who, through questions and reflecting upon things together, was able to help me see issues differently, and to learn about my leadership.

As you become more experienced and have developed other leaders and teams in the organisation, you can stand back, focus more on strategy than tactics, take time to consider what next for the organisation and lower your leading from the front. 

So lifelong learning is a correct phrase to insert here indeed. Geoff, tell us a little bit about what you enjoy about being a leader?

I enjoy working with people, hearing their stories, learning about their lives and careers, their hopes and aspirations, helping them achieve a bit more, or experience success. 

I also like responsibility; it makes me nervous, I have made mistakes and leadership can be overpowering at times, there have been sleepless nights, but I discovered early on that it gives me a sense of purpose and, yes, pride when there are signs of success.

I think some of this stems from being a teacher. Working with young people, seeing them develop, knowing you have helped them a little bit. 

I enjoy the success of others, knowing I have sometimes played a small part in their development, and watching them lead and work in different ways. Working with others includes being surprised by their ideas, methods, and skills. 

The greatest natural resource on our planet is the potential of people. Leadership is about unlocking that potential, nurturing it, helping it to thrive, and making individuals, teams and organisations realise their achievements.

Thank you so much for sharing. I love that, the potential of people. Also, I love how honest you are regarding the fact the leaders can feel nervous and overwhelmed just like anyone else.

I will end with a question that we ask at the end of every Acasus podcast episode: What is your favourite memory so far, having worked with us for many years now?

I think the work we did in Peru, putting together a leadership development programme and seeing it being put into operation. The team who did the really hard work in the Ministry and on the programme, were great: positive, enthusiastic, excited. It was terrific to work alongside them.

Plus the food in Lima is superb. Fenton likes his food and we went to some excellent restaurants and he recommended many more! 

Geoff, it was so great talking to you today, thank you so much for sharing your time and all these amazing insights with me. For all of you listening, I hope you found today’s session with Geoff useful and insightful.


Dora Forgacs