Better To Be Lucky Than Good?

Reading time: 3
shutterstock_321915197 A man in foreground, after a fight with a woman (far).

Paul Ainsworth

Paul has been writing for the Teacher Toolkit website since 2012 and is the author of 'No Silver Bullets: Day in, day out school improvement'. He is a system leader supporting primary schools, secondary schools and MATs currently with with Infinity Academies Trust as Education...
Read more about Paul Ainsworth

Is headship more about skill or luck?

Your Career Path?

All teachers at some stage in their career will have asked themselves the question as to whether they want to be a head teacher. You may be one of those teachers who immediately says, ‘no, never’. You may be at the opposite end of the spectrum and have a carefully planned career strategy, which sees you achieving your headship in ‘x number’ of years.

However, most people are in the middle and just don’t know. Instead, they try to progress throughout their career and just see what happens. The closer you get to headship, the more you consider it.

If you are a deputy head teacher, then the issue becomes more immediate and Teacher Toolkit in his recent blog explored his thoughts on whether he wanted to be a head teacher or not?

Future Leaders Headteacher

Solutions to Headship:

This week, the Future Leaders Trust published ‘Solutions to the Headteacher shortage’ which focuses on changing the perceptions about headship, with the aim of encouraging more senior leaders and middle leaders to become head teachers. Future Leaders have been tweeting the document with quotes from it. The one that caught my attention was from Michael Barber, who said:

“[Heads] who are doing the job well love it, they say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done”. (Tweet)

In my current role of supporting head teachers, I saw a flaw in the quote. I know head teachers who I believe are doing the job well, but things just don’t seem to be moving in the right direction for them. They are probably not, loving it at the moment. My paraphrase quote is, ‘when the job is going well, [head teachers] love it, they say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done’.

You may believe that if ‘things are not going for you’ then you can’t be doing the job well. In the past I would have agreed but my view has changed. Yes, I believe having the skills and attributes for headship is vitally important, but there is also one aspect that you cannot develop and that is ‘luck’.

shutterstock_290473517 Progress Bar Loading with the text: Good Luck

Image: Shutterstock


I can hear a harrumph from some readers and perhaps you too believe the famous quote from the golfer Gary Player, ‘the harder I practice, the luckier I get’. If literature or film is your thing, you may reach for the phrase: ‘Luck is believing you are lucky’ spoken by Marlon Brando in ‘A street car named Desire’.

I recently read ‘Luck’ by Ed Smith were he explains his own journey in ‘considering the concept of luck’. As a school boy and then a professional cricketer, his mantra was to retain control, eliminate risk and dictate your own destiny or ‘it’s not luck, but ability that counts’, but throughout the book, he highlights the impact of luck and his changing view on its significance.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan commented about the book:

‘… only those with scars on their body should be taken seriously when they talk about randomness. Ed is one of them’.

You may wonder how does this relate to headship?

Well, before you agonise too deeply as to whether you have the right skills for headship, I would suggest that alongside those skills, a healthy dose of luck is required too.


Firstly, there has to be an element of luck in the right job coming along at the right time for you. Then once you’ve got the job, there will be always be things that are beyond your control, which I would suggest, are luck.

In our league table world, the following factors can all impact your results:

  • A low or high demographic in a certain year group
  • The opening of a free school close to your school
  • The proportion of boys in any year group
  • The number of high ability sporty boys in a year group
  • When OfSTED decide to descend on your school
  • The identity of an OfSTED team leader and the make up of their team
  • Whether a key member of staff becomes ill or is on maternity leave
  • The popular member of staff who decides to leave the school for family reasons
  • The sudden availability of drugs in a certain area

Yes, you can use your skills to cope with these issues, but I’d suggest all of them could impact upon results. That is not to say I would ever suggest that you explain a dip in performance by saying you have been unlucky!

One question I have often asked myself is, ‘What would I rather be: the most highly skilled head teacher possible, or be lucky?

I think I’d rather be lucky! And with that, if you are a head teacher, I wish you the best of luck. If you are considering being a head teacher I could say: ‘Do you feel lucky punk?’ but I think I’d rather say ‘get lucky!’


Written by Paul K Ainsworth for Teacher Toolkit.

Paul is an Advisor for a Multi-Academy Trust, and the author of ‘Get that Teaching Job’ and ‘Bloomsbury CPD Library: Middle Leadership’. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pkainsworth and read more of his articles here.

Paul K Ainsworth
Paul K. Ainsworth


5 thoughts on “Better To Be Lucky Than Good?

  1. Found this really interesting, Paul! I understand what you mean, though I don’t think I’ve thought of it as ‘luck’ exactly – just the combination of circumstances/the context heads can find themselves in. I read things from time to time and think, ‘There but for the grace of God goes any school leader” – however strong a leader you are, really tough things can happen. However I also think that it’s when the really difficult challenges emerge that our mettle is tested and we have the capacity to show what we are truly capable of as leaders. We can prove ourselves TO ourselves, as well as to those we lead.

    I also think that a ‘lucky’ head who doesn’t have the right temperament and skills won’t achieve success. You really do need both! I hope that aspiring heads aren’t put off by dwelling on those elements they can’t control, though. What we CAN often control is our response to these elements.

    I had some tough times as a head. It didn’t always go well. But I still think it’s the best job in the school.

    Hope to catch up again soon.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Some of the challenges faced by headteachers in PRU’s (and special, of course!) would not be believed in a book of memoirs so I’ll have to supplement my pension in less creative pursuits. Never was a writer anyway ….. Heyho

  2. Thank you for your comments. I would certainly agree Jill, one of the great skills of leadership is how to respond to ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It is that calmness, grit and positivity that is all brought to bare, when things aren’t going for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.