As part of my continuing studies, I had the pleasure last week of visiting a number of schools throughout Malaysia in order to talk to Heads who have been working in the start-up sector. This is an area of specific interest to me and over the years, I have become convinced that it takes particular skills and a different mindset in order to not just survive, but thrive.

Having experienced many new schools, I agree with Gatewood et al (1995:373), who assert that these businesses can be fraught with unseen and uncontrollable problems. As such, the responsibilities for a Headteacher may include team building, planning, preparing facilities, budgets, licences and recruitment (Carter et al, 1996:153-43), as well as marketing, developing structures and setting up operations. (Gatewood et al, 1995:376-42). Although these elements may seem no different than others, it is my experience that they are concentrated due to factors such as time, ownership pressure, varying levels of support and multiple roles.

These pressures call for specific personality traits associated with the ‘entrepreneurial Headteacher.’ Through research, Rauch and Frese (2007:353 – 53), have identified the need for achievement, self-efficacy, innovativeness, stress tolerance, a need for autonomy and proactivity. This sense of autonomy appears in many articles, for example, Stuart and Abbeti (1990:152-37), who refer to it as locus of control.

The importance of personality and the link to leadership effectiveness is strong. (Rauch and Frese, 2007:364 -53). Many researchers within the entrepreneurial field also agree, and link these characteristics to the initial success, including Gatewood et al, (1995:373). However, there are examples of contradictory research, and Stuart and Abbeti (1990:151-52) claim that personality is actually not a factor in success, but rather, that professional knowledge of the field and the experience of previous start-up ventures is most significant. Gartner et al (1998:219-40) agree, but point out the importance that experience is not related to the number of years in the job, but surround specific knowledge and skills needed for the venture. (This would be valuable for Boards to consider before appointment). Interestingly, Duchesneau and Gartner (1990:299-36), also support the need for distributive leadership and high levels of communication as being vital for start-ups, which may conflict with the locus of control traits identified.

Stuart and Abbeti (1990:152-52) also state that strategic planning is vital for new venture success. Indeed, its importance within the international school context is also clear, due to the large number of innovations and multiple changes occurring at any given point. (Leggate and Thompson, 1997:268-32.) This is supported by Hodgson and Chuck (2004:42-69), who state that for emerging schools, strategic planning “can help you to understand the business you are in, guide your decision making and ultimately make the difference between growing and declining.” This would mean that the entrepreneurial Headteacher needs to show excellent strategic leadership, and ensure constant review during times of rapid change.

However, it would appear that researchers are identifying a great need for planning, whilst also acknowledging the somewhat chaotic nature of new schools which makes it difficult to do so, particularly when you consider issues of high turnover and governance. I would therefore suggest that there is a greater need for flexible planning as outlined by Wallace in Bennet et al (1992:160-73), which discusses the difficulties inherent when managing a “multiplicity of goals” (1992:155), as well as other unpredictable crises and resource shortages. This flexible planning is similar to Fullan’s mutual adaptation (Fullan, 2001:40) and has been described as the “science of muddling through.” (Blandford and Shaw, 2001:94). Leaders must therefore demonstrate “street smarts” (Gartner at al, 1998:214), and acknowledge that leadership must often be ambiguous, assuming that “turbulence and unpredictability are dominant features of an organisation” (Bush, 1995:11). This therefore requires persistence, a facilitation of opponents and a constant stream of ideas. (One does have to be careful of ‘reform fatigue’, however, a problem explored by Hallinger and Bryant, 2013:406.)

In addition, new schools often begin with a very small community. This can often result in issues such as an absence of senior staff, part time admin, role conflict and a lack of professional interaction. (Ewington et al, 2008:545-46.) When considering that Headteachers may also have “fewer opportunities to delegate their work” (Tuck, 2009: 1-49), as well as juggling having to teach and demonstrate higher levels of involvement within instruction and curriculum, it is clear that new school Headteachers face further complexities.

It is therefore understandable that some Headteachers may shy away from collaborative leadership, which often takes extra time, work and energy. (Fowler and Walberg, 2009:128,48.) The sheer workload may also create high turnover due to burnout and pressure from boards, who may not understand the range of demands being placed upon their Heads. This means that Headteachers must manage their time very effectively, and quickly develop powers of facilitative leadership in order to develop collaboration. But however it’s done, it’s tough work and there is no one set formula. Resilience is key, in my experience, along with flexibility, hard work and a highly developed sense of humour!