The Unexpected Leader

Exploring the real nature of values, authenticity and moral purpose in education

By: Iesha Small


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Products specifications
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Size: 222 x 182mm
Pages : 200
ISBN : 9781781352991
Format: Paperback
Published: January 2019

Iesha Small’s The Unexpected Leader: Exploring the real nature of values, authenticity and moral purpose in education is for school leaders who want to make a difference but feel they aren’t obvious leadership material.

This is a book about people. A book that humanises school leaders and tells their stories. A book in which school leaders reveal their authentic selves and their journeys to leadership.

Iesha set about writing The Unexpected Leader as a senior leader who looked around and struggled to find role models whose experiences she could learn from. She wanted to speak honestly with like-minded individuals about being what others didn’t expect in a leadership package – introverted, unassuming, open about their mental health. Iesha did, however, manage to identify and interview nine such school leaders – and in this book she relates their stories alongside her own, in words and photographs, to explore how thinking or acting differently need not be a barrier to school leadership, but can actually prove to be an invaluable asset.

In doing so she shatters the myths and conventional ideas around who/what makes a good school leader, and champions a more humane brand of leadership which is true to the individual and still benefits the students and staff they serve. Furthermore, Iesha offers insights into themes such as imposter syndrome, integrity, failure and ambition, and frames them in relation to her own leadership journey in order to empower and encourage all leaders – including leaders-in-waiting – to step up and set out on their own individual pathways.

Each chapter starts by inviting you, the reader, to consider your own circumstances and feelings, before Iesha’s own experience is briefly outlined so you know you aren’t alone. This is followed by an exploration of the leadership journey of the interviewed school leader, featuring key episodes that delve into how they have taken ownership of their professional and personal lives. The transferrable lessons and practical takeaways from their experiences are then discussed in order to guide you towards more effective leadership, while being unashamedly who you are. Finally, each chapter concludes with a final message or thought from the school leader in question.

Suitable for anybody in or aspiring to school leadership.

Picture for author Iesha Small

Iesha Small

Iesha Small is an educator, a writer and an innovation lead at an education think tank. Iesha was previously an assistant head teacher and taught for fourteen years. After a breakdown in 2011, she started using photography to improve her mental health and explore people's stories ' and this journey ultimately led to her becoming an author. Iesha writes about education for various publications, including The Guardian and TES, and was previously a monthly columnist for Schools Week. To keep things interesting, she is also a speaker, blogger and podcaster. She lives near London with her family and a tiny but loud dog.


  1. The Unexpected Leader offers an outstanding insight into school leadership from both Iesha Small's perspective and from nine other school leaders with a wide range of experiences.

    Iesha cleverly threads her own observations throughout the text to focus on key messages and relates helpful advice and background stories to help current or aspiring school leaders deal with the pressures of expectation - advice which Iesha wishes somebody had given her when she started her own career in education.

    As Iesha points out, the nine school leaders interviewed are all “a little different from how we might expect a leader to be”. One of the leaders, Leah, talks openly about the impact on her mental health after taking a promotion she was not fully prepared for. I particularly enjoyed Ben's strategies for building the team of teachers and creating supportive relationships, and Lila's retelling of her being the principal of an academy despite her feelings of self-doubt. The stories related by Keziah and Scarlet and the overview by the author emphasise the need to help colleagues deal with mental health issues more appropriately - particularly stress, anxiety, fear and feelings of failure, which are crippling sections of our education system.

    A really excellent book which should be read by all school leaders and any teachers thinking of taking the next step up the career ladder.
  2. “Serendipity: I had just come home from an afternoon talking to a group of NPQH trainees and had been struck by the diverse group of would-be headteachers in the room. One of the senior teachers had approached me and said, “I like what you said, but I could never be you!”. “Thank goodness for that,” I responded.

    There are, no right or wrongs of leadership. All leaders are different and that is what makes leadership exciting, challenging, daunting and often scary. That evening I started to read The Unexpected Leader and the parts of my day collided in a significant way.

    I am not really a reader of teaching handbooks. I have dipped in and out of recommended reading lists and found some to be quite thought-provoking, but maybe through lack of time, or more honestly through an egotistical view that I could only really do things my way, theoretical educational literature has not been my bag. Far better a novel with a gripping storyline for me!

    I was not grabbed by this book's opening section, which spoke of a “journey”-˜. I loathe clichés but I ploughed on. By midnight I had finished the entire thing and was engrossed in the true stories of different leaders and how they challenge the view of stereotypical school leaders.

    The style is simple and the narrative so incredibly easy to read, that it gave me a strong sense of having a dialogue with the leaders chosen to tell their tale. I was particularly struck with Tait's story (each leader is identified by their first name only), which explores the dilemma we all find ourselves in when we speak out about things that are important - while protecting the integrity of our school. Tait spoke out about Teach First, the Prevent agenda in schools and other very real, but potentially volatile issues, insisting that as leaders we have to speak up for what we believe in, “because no one else is going to”.

    Over the past year my boss, Paul Luxmoore, and I have spoken out about local authorities sending looked-after children from out of the area to Thanet, the beautiful, but massively deprived area that we work in. It has been hard - and sometimes brutal and bloody - to have the moral courage to speak out about such a controversial issue. We have both been criticised as not giving vulnerable youngsters a chance, which makes me angry as the opposite is true.

    Difficult parents, challenging budgets, Ofsted and DfE pressures have never put me off my wonderful job. Being told by others that I am immoral for standing up for young people has, however, and last year I considered walking away. In such circumstances one can often feel isolated but reading Tait's story and wise words: “If you are informed about your decision and you're informed about your ideas you have to stick with them,” made me feel strong and determined again.

    Different sections of the book will resonate with different leaders, obviously, but the accessible way in which it is written means you can dip in and out and feel the privilege of having a conversation with fellow professionals: priceless. It is a book all leaders should have on their shelves.

    It does not have answers and that makes it all the better. It is not preachy or academic, it is frank and open and thoughtful and, above all, it makes one feel uplifted and part of the wider community of school leaders across the country.

    I enjoyed it and am grateful for the experience. Maybe I should dip into educational books more often - it made me feel I am not alone. And that is more powerful than anything.”

    Click here to read the review on Schools Week's website.
  3. As you read The Unexpected Leader you dive deep into the messy, blurry world of leadership and meet a variety of school leaders who lead beyond the confines of a compartmentalised box: those leaders who cannot, do not, will not conform.

    Breaking out of the leadership mould, a mould created by our system, by our schools, by our society, takes courage and tenacity - as well as honesty, authenticity and vulnerability - which Iesha embodies in abundance as a reflective practitioner. In this book she carefully unpicks the sensitive and sometimes thorny issues of imposter syndrome, quiet leadership, and leadership visibility and perception - and the personal and professional epiphany that she shares early on will resonate with all those leaders who realise that they do not go with the status quo.

    If you are interested in the human condition, and enjoy reading and learning from personal stories, then this book is for you as it encourages you to be your whole self and to embrace being different.
  4. The Unexpected Leader is a must-read for those who find themselves thrust into an unfamiliar leadership role where they don't quite “fit”. Iesha's honest account of her own journey into leadership is humbling and uplifting, offering hope to those who may be struggling with the challenges that the role can bring. And by carefully weaving her own experiences around the narratives of other “unexpected” leaders, her moral integrity shines through as she shares a set of key principles to help leaders lead with values-driven integrity, even during the toughest of times.

    Iesha's alternative model of what leadership can look like is much needed, helping us to recognise that leaders don't have to fit into a pre-defined mould. It is the perfect antidote to the many management books that offer off-the-shelf solutions to improving standards without paying due attention to the fact that leadership is a messy, difficult and sometimes fraught experience.

    I hope that as more people read this book, it brings them the tools and confidence to fully embrace their strengths as unexpected leaders. There is plenty here for the education sector as a whole too as it grows in its ability to recognise and nourish these individuals on their journeys.
  5. What teachers need now is a frank and open discussion on the ways in which teaching can impact upon them as individuals, and The Unexpected Leader is full to the brim with the sheer humanity of the profession - with the highs and the lows laid out for us all to share.

    Authenticity has always been Iesha Small's watchword - it doesn't get much more authentic than this book. A must-read.
  6. The Unexpected Leader is for anyone working in education who feels they are “different”. If you feel like you are an outsider, an imposter or not good enough, then Iesha's book proves you are in good company with many of the very best school leaders.

    Through a series of honest and enlightening conversations with a variety of educationalists, Iesha examines how we all have the incredible potential to lead and to change the lives of those around us by embracing openness, vulnerability and our common humanity. Those things you got into teaching for before the system kicked in, remember? The Unexpected Leader encourages you to embrace your uniqueness and to kick back, mostly against your own thinking that might be holding you down. I found the bullshit-free advice, told through the book's stories, on navigating this challenge both informative and inspiring.

    Highly recommended.
  7. This is a book of hope, revelation and encouragement. However you define yourself as a leader, and especially if you feel that you don't quite fit the mould, The Unexpected Leader will make you realise that strength is gained through our vulnerabilities.

    What I value most about Iesha's book is that it encourages the reader to accept and own who they are, and be unapologetically and uniquely themselves. It does this by presenting great leadership role models who share their “gifts of imperfection” to offer a guiding light for “unexpected” leaders.

    Iesha intertwines her personal experiences and learning points with the honest accounts of nine diverse school leaders who recognise what they have to offer and make a positive difference to the young people they serve. Having struggled within a leadership role myself, many of the accounts shared within this book resonate deeply with me - especially Karen's, as I was particularly struck by her unusual career pathway of becoming a head teacher having not been a deputy first, and how she has succeeded in spite of this. It's great to read the key messages elicited from each story and consider what they mean for what we ourselves can go on to do. They all provide vital points of reflection.

    The Unexpected Leader will now form part of my leadership collection, and I will strongly recommend it to others.  
  8. The Unexpected Leader provides reflective lessons on school leadership and gleans nuggets of learning for all leaders across the breadth of education. Iesha's writing style is easily accessible, and her illuminating candour and self-effacing authenticity - and that of her interviewees - leaps off every page. I could relate to each of the senior leaders and I wish I had been more familiar with the themes discussed in this book when I first started out on my own leadership journey.

    I would encourage others to read The Unexpected Leader and to reflect upon its message - as there is much to learn from each leadership experience explored within it.
  9. With startling frankness and openness Iesha Small uses her own experience in school leadership as the starting point for an inquiry into the challenges, the obstacles and the possibilities for leaders in education. What follows is a series of in-depth interviews which, like the best conversations, stay with you  long after they are over.
  10. Every now and again a book grips you. You start reading out of curiosity and find it was written for you. The Unexpected Leader is one of those books. Iesha Small draws you in to a conversation around the complexity of the stories we tell ourselves about our value, challenges your own inconvenient truths and then signposts a way to deeper authenticity and fulfilment. It's disarming and empowering in equal measure, and it's the book I wish I'd had at the start of my own leadership journey.
  11. Honest, open, insightful and, above all, fascinating. Iesha Small has written a seriously important book about educational leadership.
  12. The Unexpected Leader is a quite remarkable book full of subtle and important insights. Using the professional and personal life stories of a range of leaders, Iesha shines a light on the varied routes into leadership roles. The beautifully crafted accounts of individual stories combined with her own experiences create a rich hinterland to the motivations, the fears and the joys of this work. It is an important read for all in education and will be particularly helpful for young leaders who might be doubting themselves. Heart-warming, inspiring and insightful in equal measure.
  13. While hundreds of titles have already been published on the demands and complexities of school leadership, this brave and honest book explores the issues of workload, imposter syndrome and mental health through the stories of real people. Between these accounts and Iesha's own personal insights, the implications of the challenges facing the education system - such as funding, accountability and teacher recruitment and retention - are all brought to life.

    Iesha's refreshingly simple yet convincing narrative challenges the stereotypical view of what makes a great leader and tells us it's okay to be different. The experiences she has collated, together with her analysis of the lessons we can learn from them, make The Unexpected Leader an invaluable resource for teachers, leaders and policy makers alike.
  14. Iesha Small's quiet strength shines through this book via the conversations she has with others who may not fit the more commonly held preconceptions of what people who run schools are actually like. Providing a fascinatingly human insight into what it takes to manage (in more ways than one) in an educational setting, Iesha talks to those who have followed their own paths to positions of leadership and also offers her own unique story as a way of broadening the narrative around the people who take on this great responsibility.     

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