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7 Questions on Leadership with Gemma Atkins

Name: Gemma Atkins

Title: Leadership Coach

Organisation: Gemma Atkins Leadership Coaching

Currently: Empowering educational leaders to execute their Strategic vision, build a school culture that prioritises well-being whilst achieving personal and professional growth.

20 years of experience in education and 16 years of educational leadership across all sectors: state, international and independent.

I began my career as a PE teacher in Formby, Liverpool and quickly rose through the ranks to become Head of PE. In 2013 I relocated to Dubai and was appointed as 3-18 Director of Sport at JESS Dubai. In 2016 I moved back to the UK to undertake the the role of Director of Sport at Ampleforth College (the first female Director of Sport). After 5 years at Ampleforth I was then promoted to Senior Leadership in a state school in Redcar. I have recently left to set up my own leadership coaching business.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Gemma's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Juggling all the reactionary aspects of the job whilst still trying to implement strategic thinking; making the school development plan come to life - not just words on a page and making a positive impact on the life chances of the children in our care. That is in addition to trying to develop a culture of true well-being for staff.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

When I was a PE teacher I could see that there were gaps in the curriculum offer at KS4. We had some disaffection and I didn't feel children were developing the required skills to help them tackle the big wide world beyond 16! With the approval of my Head of Dept, I implemented a couple of initiatives - measured it's impact - I loved it - the kids loved it! What I didn't realise is that what I had done was, in fact, leadership! I had just done it because I thought it was right for the kids - I modelled it - I was passionate about it - I got the other staff in the Dept to buy into my vision.... I got such a buzz from seeing the kids and staff thrive that I was hooked. I just wanted to make it better and better for everyone.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Being in education your days are more or less structured for you: 6 duties every day, teaching commitments, line management meetings with the heads of dept I line managed, meetings after-school, reacting to behaviour issues on the radio, lots of reactionary things - every day. I was lucky to go to the toilet or grab something to eat most days.

I never got work-life balance right. I left the house at 6.30am and got home at 6.30pm. Fed everyone. More work after 8pm once the kids had gone to bed. That's the life of teachers, heads of dept, senior leaders. Sunday afternoon was always work. I wish I had got a better balance - the job just didn't allow it.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

Brene Brown...

There is no courage without vulnerability.

If there is no vulnerability there will no creativity.

If there is no tolerance for failure there will be no innovation.

Vulnerability is the feeling we get when we feel uncertain, at risk or emotionally exposed.

If we build culture at work where there is zero tolerance for vulnerability - where perfectionism and armour are rewarded (and necessary) - you can't have open, difficult and productive conversations that move the organisation forward.

If we can't have these open, difficult and productive conversations, we start talking about people rather than talking to people. It creates a toxic culture.

Work is a tough place to be vulnerable - we spend half of our lives at work. Brene's research showed that she never met a person with a joyful, whole-hearted life that was miserable at work.

Brave leaders are never silent around hard things. Question - what is the thing that is not being said? That requires courage and vulnerability.

We have to choose courage over comfort. Even if you are not sure you are going to 'get it right' - just try. Don't stay quiet. Be vulnerable. Learn and grow. You don't need to have all the answers.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

Time to Think by Nancy Kline.

Everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.

People’s actions are only as good as the idea behind it. The thinking has to come first!

To improve an action, we first must improve the thinking.

A thinking environment is a set of ten conditions under which human beings can think for themselves – with rigour, imagination, courage and grace.

A thinking environment is natural, but rare. It has been squeezed out of our lives – perhaps due to our inferior way of treating each other? Time? Spinning plates? Deadlines?


6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Be human. Be you. Be vulnerable. You don't (and won't) have all the answers - that's okay! The role of a leader is to create an environment where great ideas are created.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

I was a new Head of PE and had to appoint my 'Second in PE'. It was my first ever interview process sat on the other side of the table. There was an internal candidate who unfortunately was unsuccessful (I had worked with him for 3 years - he was 20years older than me, with way more experience). When I came back into the PE office (after he had been given the news that he had been unsuccessful), I "played the role" of (what I thought) a 'leader' would do in that situation. I took human emotion out of it - i put on my armour - my poker face on and I asked to arrange a time to meet with him to discuss his feedback. I then walked out of the office.

That is a memory that comes back to haunt me. I didn't know that a leader could or should show empathy / sympathy / emotion. I thought vulnerability was weakness.

I got it wrong - badly. I have since spoken to that member of staff (16years later) and apologised for my poor and inexcusable behaviour. He forgave me and I am very grateful for that.

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