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7 Questions on Leadership with Nate Atkinson

Name: Nate Atkinson

Title: Executive Principal

OrganisationSummerland Christian College

Nate is a husband and father of a beautiful family, and he loves what he does. He is a passionate Christian educational leader. As an educator, Nate has served in a variety of academic, pastoral and leadership roles in K-12 Co-educational Christian schools. Having served at Scone Grammar School for ten years as a K-12 Deputy Principal he is presently Executive Principal at Summerland Christian College and Hinterland Christian College in the Northern region of New South Wales.

Nate studied a Master of Educational Leadership and has a Certificate in K-12 School Management from Harvard. He is currently undertaking a PhD in Educational Leadership and is a member oof the Australian College of Education Leadership (MACEL) and Christian Educators Professional Association (CEPA).

He is most passionate about leading staff and students in the application of both clear Christ-centred thinking and high-quality educational practice. He believes that his purpose as a Principal of the two Colleges he leads is to develop the structures, teaching and learning practices and experiences that build students up as whole people and create opportunities for staff to thrive and the organisation to strengthen and grow for the next generation of leaders.

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

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


Jonno White

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

What I have found most challenging as a leader has also been the most rewarding when it comes to pass. That is, finding a way amidst the vast array of leadership responsibilities make time to find and share the ‘why’ or ‘purpose’ behind moving initiatives and practices that make life better for those we serve, forward.

Finding time in the ‘busy’ to focus teams on the main thing! I love what Simon Sinek says about teams finding and sharing their purpose and sharing the ‘why’ widely and often as a key factor in achieving what they are called to do. It’s exciting to inspire others to action in this way. I think what’s most challenging, as Simon Sinek also says, is creating the right setting for our people to actualise their giftings to make meaningful contributions- he says “the role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas; the role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”

Schools are inherently complex and fast paced environments, so the consistent challenge of ‘seeing’ and ‘leading’ people, above programs and the weight of administration, I have found, is the greatest challenge, but one most worthy of embracing as there is where the ‘gold’ is! This is our role as leaders.

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

When I stop and think about it, one thing seemed to have led to another and there has been a melding together of ‘passions’ for me which has led to being in positions of leadership. As the years have unfolded it has felt as though God has just placed me where I was meant to be. I know this to be true as I have felt alive in service wherever that has been.

I had an interesting journey into educational leadership, having served as both a leader in ministry and in teaching. To support my desire to contribute in both of these areas, I undertook undergraduate degrees in Theology and Teaching as I knew both would be the basis for bring my passion for teaching and ministry together.

When I couple these two areas together and consider how through those years, I always just seemed to be in a position to be able to work with others to strategise and collaborate on how to lead teams in meaningful pursuits or through challenging circumstances (see here, one such experience in my first years as a Principal), leading schools is a good fit for me to make a difference. I’ve never thought of myself as a leader in isolation to team-mates with me in the task.

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

I have a pretty routine day Monday to Friday; some with more flair or natural ability might say ‘boring’, but I would argue stable, consistent and reliable! Im most rigiod on my morning routine. I usually awake at 4:55am for daily devotion and prayer (with coffee!) and some thinking about the day ahead. Starting the day with Bible and prayer has always been a staple for me.

After reading ‘The 5am Club’ and more recently ‘Atomic Habits’, I have been consistent with this daily start to the day. I then go to the gym, alternating my days between cardio and circuit workouts. I try and arrive home to connect with my family before we head into our days. I get to school and set up my day in accord with the plan I set the afternoon prior. Connecting with staff and students to start the day is a priority before attending to the daily mission.

My day is consciously split between setting up my key leaders with what they need by collaborating and keeping an eye on where we are headed as well as the administrative tasks that need to be attended to. I’m not certain I have cracked the perfect rhythm of a day yet, but I try and maintain a balance of looking at the ‘now’ and looking ‘ahead’ or what some would say as the ‘dancefloor and balcony’. This is how I mostly structure my day; a balance of now and forward thinking and acting.

I look forward to arriving home for dinner as a family and enjoying the sanctuary of home and a good night’s sleep. The reality of Principalship in this age, is that there are some evening meetings and events and sometimes things just need to be attended to when the family have retired for the evening; I strive to minimise these times and seek to balance up at other times when it is possible; I do enjoy the privilege of spending time dreaming ahead in leisure time.

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

My leadership team and I have been working on the development of a learning framework that would steer a learning direction for our teachers and students towards a ‘future focused’ education for our students. When I recently visited some schools in the US and Canada (State and Christian schools who have experienced gains for students with Deep Learning- you can listen to a podcast recorded at one school here) I was struck by the simplicity and tenacity in the way that the leadership and wider staff group undertook in the living out of their visons.

When the vision was established and formed into a workable framework and captured in their improvement or strategic plans, the most successful leaders took a simple approach of then deliberately aligning resources to support the vison and inspired their teams to tenaciously work together on it.

More poignantly, they harnessed the collective strengths, giftings and talents of their teams by providing ‘clarity’ in where they were going and ‘coherence’ in resourcing and messaging across their schools; this is such an important thing to do! Collective organisational leadership, psychological and educational research backs the importance of these twin ideals of clarity and coherence. No matter the field one is called to lead in, these two elements matter.

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?

While I enjoy reading about a variety of topics that support quality leadership, thriving education and a living faith, there is one that has stuck with me. ‘Servant Leadership’ by Robert Greenleaf. The topic of servant leadership, theoretically defined and coined by Greenleaf, has been a mast post and an interpretative tool when considering the plethora of ideas and models presented over the years. The notion of ‘Servant Leadership’ is unambiguous in the way it describes the role of leader as first and foremost a servant and powerful and instructive in the way we can approach any facet of our roles. The servant as leader is more than just a theoretical framework, but rather a way of being and leading. Even after several decades, it has stood the test of time for me, as the lens it provides allows others’ ideas to be contextualised and/or interpreted in relation to it.

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

This is a tough question as I, in no way shape or form, feel like I am anything else other than still a learner of leadership. Perhaps my advice is then, to maintain the disposition of a learner. I think to take this posture serves to keep us in a humbler stature, places ourselves more often in the same place as our students and keeps us hungry to keep growing- both in our Christlikeness and in our knowledge of our field and leadership. Ron Ritchhart says "To find the core of a school, don't look at its rule book or even its mission statement. Look at the way the people in it spend their time-how they relate to each other, how they grapple with ideas." This reminds me that leaders need to be thinkers and learners first and foremost. And, let’s not forget… learning is fun!

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

Leading in an educational context gives opportunity to share many meaningful experiences as we are privileged to spend so much time, especially over many years, with so many people! Hearing others’ stories about how a learning experience has changed their life in some way is always energising and soulfully encouraging.

I find it difficult to distinguish in importance the regular, everyday insights from youngest to oldest in our places and the standout 360 degree turns some make in response to God or a new understanding on something. When I consider the span of possible responses to this question, I find meaning in the storyline of everyday faithfulness of those whom I serve beside. While the faces have changed over the years, as mine has likely changed too!, there is something special, profound, to be found in the shoulder to shoulder service with those who care as deeply as you do about the futures of our young people.

What lights me up is the way sparks of goodness can be multiplied when hearts are aligned in the educational endeavour; when passionate people come together, truly come together, and invest in young people.

As I reflect and triage meaningful leadership and service experiences (eliciting the spectrum of feelings from joy, sadness, frustration and exhilaration!) what I desperately want to communicate is not one story above others, but the simple, yet crystalising realisation for me, that the most meaningful leadership and service moments are never self-serving or experiences that happen in isolation from others- always for and with ‘people’- how fulfilling for us. What does that say about the nature of leadership and what does that mean for our leading?

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