Imperfect Leadership

A book for leaders who know they don’t know it all

By: Steve Munby


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Products specifications
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Size: 234 x 156mm
Pages : 320
ISBN : 9781785834110
Format: Hardback
Published: July 2019

In Imperfect Leadership: A book for leaders who know they don’t know it all, Steve Munby eloquently reflects upon and describes a leadership approach that is strong on self-awareness and positive about the importance of asking for help.

Foreword by Michael Fullan.

When asked to describe his own leadership style, Steve uses the word ‘imperfect’. This is not something he apologises for; he feels imperfect leadership should be celebrated. Too often we are given examples of leaders who are put on some kind of pedestal, lauded as superheroes who have it all worked out and are so good at what they do that nobody else can come close.

This book is the antidote to that flawed perception.

Imperfect Leadership is an honest reflection upon leadership. It is about Steve’s journey, covering his highs and lows and, ultimately, how he learned to refine and improve his leadership. It is about messy, trial-and-error, butterflies-in-the-stomach leadership and about thoughtful and invitational leadership – and the positive impact it can have.

At the heart of the book are edited highlights of the 12 keynote speeches delivered to increasingly large audiences of school leaders between 2005 and 2017. These speeches, delivered at the Seizing Success and Inspiring Leadership conferences, form the structure around which Steve’s story and insights are wrapped.

Steve’s account covers some fundamental shifts in the English education system over this 12-year period and describes how school leaders altered their leadership as this context changed. Furthermore, it delves into how his own leadership developed as his personal context changed, and explores how the notion that a leader needs to be good at all aspects of leadership is not only unrealistic, but is also bad for the mental and physical health of leaders – and will do nothing to attract new people into leadership positions.

Ultimately, Steve hopes that as you read this book you will see the value of imperfect leadership and of the positive impact it can make. For those reading it who have yet to step up into leadership, his sincere wish is that it will encourage and empower aspirational leaders rather than discourage them.

Suitable for all those in or aspiring to leadership positions in education.

Picture for author Steve Munby

Steve Munby

Steve Munby has spent his whole career in education, first as a teacher and then as an adviser and inspector before moving into leadership. Between 2005 and 2017 he was chief executive first of the National College for School Leadership in England and then of Education Development Trust, an international education charity. He is now a self-employed consultant and speaker on leadership and on system reform. 


  1. In Imperfect Leadership, Steve Munby provides a first-person account of his experiences as an adviser and inspector prior to moving to director of education in Knowsley, England, and then serving as the CEO of the National College for School Leadership.

    Munby's account transcends geographical borders and reads as a self-reflection about his time as a leader. Superintendents will recognize the many similar political, social and societal issues that often present a conundrum. Readers may find themselves getting caught up attempting to compare the nuances of England's education system with the details of the U.S. educational system.

    The author's experiences illustrate imperfect leadership and provide a lens through which to consider similar situations. One theme that consistently emerges and spirals throughout the book is the importance of establishing, building and nurturing relationships. Munby believes in the value of finding a mentor as one navigates the challenges of any new leadership position.

    His reflections are authentic and provide readers with the answers to questions such as, "What went well?" "What did not go so well?"and "What could I have done differently?" He reminds readers that leadership requires risk-taking and moral purpose and that it is a privilege undertaken with the understanding that the positive impact can be far-reaching.

  2. Steve Munby is one of those revered and beloved characters who has been entrenched in our educational landscape for a long time. Being asked to review his book is a bit like being asked to comment on your favourite uncle's life work - you approach it with a fondness and a desire to say great things.

    On opening the book, there are no fewer than 18 plaudits from the great and good of education saying what a masterpiece it is. Reading these I froze and thought: what if I don't like it? What if it brings nothing new? I didn't want to be the one going against the tide.

    But I needn't have worried. While Imperfect Leadership focuses on 12 keynote speeches given over 12 years - most of which I'd heard at the time - there is so much more to it than that. It's part autobiography, where Steve reflects on his own leadership journey through the various organisations he has led, part social commentary on the political and educational context he needed to navigate, and part leadership manual, exemplifying and demystifying pretty much all of the main leadership paradigms of the past 20 years.
    The concept of the fallible leader isn't new, but it's the way in which Steve shares his worries, fears and thoughts each time he faced a new challenge that gives real credence to the idea that it's OK not to be the hero leader, and that to doubt yourself is a strength.

    Fallible leader

    When he took up the reins of the National College for School Leadership, Steve had a strong track record in local authorities, but no experience of headship. This caused a stir and a number of raised eyebrows, particularly within the government that had appointed him. To have your appointment questioned by your paymasters, and to know that the eyes of school leaders across the country are on you, is enough to shake the resolve of the hardiest of people.

    Steve's response to this was reassuringly practical: he found himself the very best mentors and engaged and involved as many leaders as possible in shaping the vision of the college. Given its overall success, it is a good reminder for us all to keep it simple.

    In particular, as someone who struggled with the workings of the National College, and at times really questioned some of the activities in which it got involved, I find it fascinating to discover that Steve too felt that, on occasion under his leadership, the college lost its way. Again, this message that leadership is about honest reflection is gold dust.
    In fact, what shines through the book is Steve's honesty and humility. We are taken willingly along on his journey of self-discovery as a leader. As I read the developing history of the college, I was reminded just how many of today's forces for school improvement - teaching schools, national leaders of education, to name just a couple - had their genesis in the college, and we should all be grateful for this legacy.

    Honesty and humility

    As far a social commentary is concerned, the book provides real insight into the evolving educational context over more than a decade, in terms of educational reform and policymaking. It paints a vivid picture of what it's like to work with ministers and various government departments and quangos. In places, it's almost a warts-and-all expose' of what needs to be done to survive and navigate the education sector when leading a national organisation. If that makes for uncomfortable reading, then good, because that's just how it is.

    It's a salutary lesson to us all that we can't be so naive as to think that political agendas won't influence the decisions we take as leaders. In relating this part of his leadership history, it's a sign of Steve's integrity and bravery that he names names (no spoilers!) and calls people out when they don't meet the standards we should expect of them, and when political agendas took precedence over doing what was right.
    Steve's speeches focused on the need for leadership to respond to the changing landscape, and each one adds another dimension to what is almost a leadership framework that can guide us all in whatever role we find ourselves.

    Leadership bible

    We are taken through pretty much every paradigm of leadership over the past 10 years, focusing on ethics, authenticity, adaptability, power and even love. The speeches are as relevant now as when he delivered them. The narrative he provides as he explains why he chose each theme and why it resonated at the time exemplifies the leadership concept so clearly as to make it accessible and useful to all, whether a middle leader new in post or an experienced chief executive.

    I imagine this will become a leadership bible. And rightly so.

  3. In compiling this honest, authentic and remarkable account of his own leadership journey, Steve Munby has written a book which I found just impossible to put down. As well as giving a fascinating insight into the inner workings of government and large organisations, he weaves into the narrative powerful leadership messages that will both inspire and challenge the leaders of today. 

    In his characteristically optimistic, pragmatic and thought-provoking way, Steve takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride that's full of ups and downs - and reminds us that leadership is, in the end, about our passion and belief in what we do and why it matters.

    I challenge any reader not to be absolutely enthralled by this tour de force of a book.

  4. This is the most perfectly brilliant book about imperfect leadership that any great leader could possibly write. There is no other book like it. Unlike most political memoirs, it is not a tedious recollection of meetings and events.

    Unlike corporate leadership texts, it is not a narrative of vainglorious self-congratulation either. Nor is it a self-indulgent confession of failure and wrongdoing. Instead, Steve Munby's Imperfect Leadership is an honest, open and articulate account of a life of leadership lived as a public servant for the public good in constantly changing times. 

    If you are or aspire to be a leader in the education or social sector, and if you have even an ounce of integrity, Imperfect Leadership is a must-read.
  5. Imperfect Leadership is an extraordinary book. It is a story of highly successful adaptive leadership, of a quest for personal and professional growth and the exercise of principled influence - both with and through others - and above all it communicates the power of imperfect leadership. 

    At once disarmingly honest and penetratingly insightful, it will inspire all educators, particularly school and system leaders.

  6. Steve Munby's Imperfect Leadership is a fitting tribute to his leadership journey, his moral compass, his fierce devotion to sustainable principles, and his adherence to values-informed leadership. It transports us to the pinnacle of what world-class leadership looks like, and, delivered in Steve's own inimitable way, provides honest, soul-searching insights into what leading-edge leadership looks like.

    Guided by his core, sustaining values, Steve deftly untangles the complexities of leadership and illuminates various leadership types, styles and possibilities. He dispels myths and false dichotomies, identifies his own highs and lows and moments of exhilaration, and subtly flexes his muscles by deconstructing leadership and its potential impact.

    At a time in our history when leaders must address issues such as rising nationalism and generational shifts in visions, values, mandates and expectations, the takeaway for me from Imperfect Leadership is the need to pay attention to the 'sleeping', 'newspaper', 'mirror' and 'teenager' leadership tests that he discusses: to focus on the inner voice and to exercise moral purpose as a tribute to the moral compass that Steve himself has exercised over a lifetime of exemplary leadership in education. For all the hurdles we face as leaders across the globe, we all want to share his humility, quiet confidence, fidelity to moral purpose, and the legacy of his ability to influence the educational outcomes and life chances of the students he has advocated for throughout his illustrious career. I offer rapturous applause to Steve, who we have grown to rely on to take us to places that we would not have gone without him.

    Offering oases of hope, tranquillity and optimism, Imperfect Leadership provides both challenges and validation for those who aspire to or are currently wearing the mantle of leadership that Steve so aptly constructs and articulates for us.

  7. Are good leaders born or made? In Imperfect Leadership Steve Munby argues that good leaders recognise they are imperfect, and that it's through this recognition and consequent openness to learning that good leadership is built. Steve is reflective and honest throughout, providing a compendium of tried-and-tested ideas and tips on how to maintain clear-headed, context-aware, ethical leadership. And as he shares eye-opening stories and incisive analysis of education policy, we are treated to a wealth of long-developed expertise and a robust evaluation of the English school system. Ultimately, Steve exemplifies and charts how to accomplish what we all want - to thrive as successful, judicious leaders, while remaining decent people.

    Imperfect Leadership is a book for those considering, or already involved in, the hard and challenging task of leading organisations. Emerging leaders will gain wisdom, advice, encouragement; more experienced leaders will find sustenance and reinvigoration.

  8. Steve Munby's Imperfect Leadership is a heartfelt account of what it means to be at the helm of a national organisation and of what it takes to make a difference to both people and outcomes. Moral purpose, networks, capacity for decision-making, care and - above all - tenacity and attention to detail are the key messages that flow from this book, which also offers a frank and insightful set of reflections that get to the crux of educational leadership.

    A must-read for anyone who seeks to better understand the art of successful leadership.

  9. Imperfect Leadership is an inspiring, globally resonant leadership tour de force that outlines the experiences and challenges that Steve Munby has faced as a leader over more than three decades.

    It is a self-reflective study of the qualities needed to be a successful leader in the education sector, and is a revealing and fascinating look behind the scenes of the contexts and structures where Steve has been a leader - tracing the humanity and humility that he has brought to every organisation he has led.

    The structure of the book enables us to remind ourselves of the passionate and thoughtful speeches Steve has made throughout his career. Each provides a different building block to help him construct a leadership framework that we can all follow and can become part of his legacy for system-wide improvement. The opening chapter shows us that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness - and the chapter on power and love is drawn from a speech I remember well, having been in the audience on the day he presented it. In this Steve speaks about the morality of leadership: describing the need to go beyond having good intentions and wanting the best for children, to having the single-minded determination to make a real difference. As an MAT CEO at the time, I needed to hear that message, and I drew on it on multiple occasions to reassure myself that the changes I was leading were changes that would have long-term benefits for the children I was accountable for.

    We live in an era where the understanding of leadership is expanding quicker than at any time I can remember. If there is one book that describes how we lead in complex times, that reveals the development of an education system over 30 years, and that reminds us about the heart and soul of leadership, then this is it. Imperfect Leadership is the story of our lives as school leaders.

    Steve Munby is a man of his word who set out to make a difference. He delivered!

  10. Imperfect Leadership is an important book. It's important in its subject matter, in its point of focus, and most of all in its unblinking honesty.

    Like Steve Munby, I've led organisations and teams with mixed results, and during the journey I've discovered one great truth: you learn far more from your failures than your successes. Through a rigorous and sometimes painful process of self-questioning, Steve offers all of us the opportunity to reflect, to improve, and to possibly even inspire those around us.
  11. It's rare to come across a book as wise about leadership as this one. Beginning with the title itself, this is no sentimental, misty-eyed account of a hero leader; instead, it's about authentic, resilient leadership that acknowledges our own imperfections, recognises the anxieties that gnaw away at all true leaders, and goes on to inspire others to give their best.

    With an extraordinary mix of personal insights and his insider's knowledge of recent education policy - plus a range of perspectives from various international experts - Steve Munby deepens our thinking, nudges us to be more ambitious in our aspirations, and inspires us to understand and then enact all that great leadership can achieve.

    Imperfect Leadership is a book of breathtaking wisdom. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  12. From small groups to large countries, it's hard to overestimate the impact of leadership on the culture and effectiveness of organisations. For that reason, there's a burgeoning library of scholarly research and popular books on leadership. Imperfect Leadership is something different, however. Part memoir, part social history and part practical handbook, this book gives us a deeply human, close-grained account of Steve Munby's evolution as a leader as he steered a key national organisation through the white waters of educational change in England. Resoundingly honest and soul-searching, Imperfect Leadership is also an inspirational and practical guide to handling the complex challenges - and navigating the steep learning curves - that caring leaders face. 

  13. As the world changed around us, Steve's integrity was always a fixed point, to be relied on completely - and in Imperfect Leadership he provides deep insights into two decades of education reform and improvement in England. The book is a guide to personal leadership in education and how it can make a difference, and Steve brings to its pages - as he brings to everything - wisdom, self-knowledge and wit.

    Anyone interested in learning what it takes to bring about a school system that delivers both equity and high standards will benefit from reading Imperfect Leadership.

  14. Imperfect Leadership is Steve's reflection on his professional life and work, and it contains the insights of someone who has experienced the thick and thin of the changes in the education sector - offering not only a glimpse into his inner world in leading change, but also a commentary on the shifts that have taken place in the English education system over a period spanning 2004-2017. From the book, one can sense the joys and frustrations of leaders in education, as well as their dedication and sacrifice. Readers will also gain much from the episodes that Steve shares about his leadership journey, as he eloquently argues that the best leaders are those who are aware of their strengths and weaknesses - and who do not try to be perfect at everything, but rather look for people who will make a complete team.

    This book could be the perfect gift to encourage those who are humbly striving to improve their leadership - not for perfection, but rather for their service to education.

  15. Steve Munby won't thank me for saying this, but he is a hero to many of us who have worked with him. In my time as a head teacher, he was always there with gentle advice, a challenge or an insight.

    Steve's humility, humanity and intellect - and ability to make the complex simple - shine through in this remarkable and deeply insightful book. Imperfect Leadership is perhaps the most honest and, ironically, perfectly formed text on leadership I have ever read.

  16. Imperfect Leadership is full of wisdom on how to lead educational organisations with passion and integrity in the face of relentless challenge and political pressure. Its compelling cases and reflections will inspire school and system leaders to pursue their vision and ideals through the toughest of times.

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