Diana Osagie is one of the most respected and beloved educational leaders in the UK. She was also one of the youngest Black female headteachers in British history. With 16 years’ experience leading secondary education, Diana has worked at the cutting edge of education and school improvement. She is also a National Schools Inspector, lectures on Educational Leadership and teaches the Masters program in Educational Leadership for the National College of Education. She is known as a resilient leader, skilled in urban leadership under challenging circumstances. Diana has substantial success in developing performance models that strategically enhance the quality of learning across the curriculum and can couple sound strategic vision whilst giving clear operational direction and is now lending her expertise to the private sector. Her first book Courageous Leadership teaches the invaluable lessons of being a values-led and authentic leader.
What does it mean for you to have a commitment to inclusion?
I cannot fathom living life another way, it does not make sense to exclude others because of difference. If you are gay if you are not gay. If you are black if you are not black. If you are Christian if you are not Christian- why would any of this become a reason for me to exclude you or discriminate or be just be unkind?
This is our planet; this is our world. Nobody has more rights than anyone else to anything this wonderful world has to offer. So, when we encounter discrimination against anyone, we must challenge it with commitment and try to correct it. That is inclusion to me.
What’s the one the thing you’ll never compromise on?
Loyalty. When working with people and within teams, I need us to be loyal to each other and our common purpose. I cannot work without this. Us educators have young people’s lives in our hands, and we have such a small margin of error. If you get school wrong, it is incredibly difficult to get a second chance. If you get school wrong, the outcomes for your life are drastically altered. What we have responsibility over is that important, so I will work to cultivate a team around me that can effectively manage that responsibility to achieve the best possible outcome for each and every child.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t blind faith. You need loyal people around you that will check you and call you out if they believe you are not making the right calls. You can be a pillar of integrity but without a clear selfless commitment to cause, you’ll regularly find friction when trying to move up the ladder.
The seasons will change but if you are with me, then you’re with me when its winter as well as when its summer.
What inspires you?
I think it’s worth mentioning, I am not really inspired by celebrities or famous people, except Michelle Obama, obviously. This is because their stories become trite and sterilised to not spoil the image/brand of the person speaking. So, I am often encouraged by their stories but am not inspired. I am, however, greatly inspired when ordinary people do extraordinary things or when they achieved what is, by design, not intended for them.
For example, I was recently sat on YouTube (as many of us are doing these days) as someone had text me a video of a man that was due to be married – he was 538 pounds. In the beginning of the video he is seen saying “I cannot drag the women I love through what I will face if I don’t get my life together”. The video showed the man’s journey through weight loss and ultimately, in 15 months, his loss of 300+ pounds.
I also remember this woman from my first school. She was a typical first-generation mother; no vision for her life outside being a mum and a wife. One day I was walking through a local park on my way to school at around 6am, the same route I took every day in the summer. However today when I walked past, I saw this woman, and she was by herself on the little outdoor fitness machines. I told her it was brilliant to see her investing in herself, she said she was now coming every morning before the children wake up because she wants to do more for myself. She said she wanted to get fit and then, when she felt more confident, she wanted to go to adult college and learn to read and write properly. I was so inspired by her drive and purpose that I promised her that when she was ready, she must come to the school and would ensure her education. She of course told her friends and a few months later I had a class full of first- and second-generation parents, eager and willing to better their outcomes and the outcomes of their children.
To me, inspiration is to step up out of my ordinary into the extraordinary and take action. The man got me off my feet and down to my garden to exercise. And the mother reminded me it’s never too late to turn your life around. If there’s breath in your body, you can do whatever you put your mind to, you have no excuse.
What’s something about you that surprises people?
That I have a feminine voice [laughs heartily]. I think because of my size, I’m over 6ft, people are taken aback that I don’t sound masculine and gruff! The adage is true, don’t judge a book by its cover.
How has your background and experience prepared you to be effective?
I owe so much of the way I have developed to my parents and our culture.
From a very young age, I saw the benefits of highly valuing of people and relationships. I learnt that from my dad. He could have a positive relationship with a rock. He was just that friendly. When he came to this country, everyone called him John, which wasn’t his name, but they loved him and he loved them, so he didn’t mind – he knew they couldn’t pronounce his Nigerian name anyway. My dad put selflessness and gratitude into the world with force. He would regularly share his last meal with someone in need from the estate, usually children. Back then children would often be at home on their own, it was normal. There was a family around the corner with literally nothing, he always ensured those children never went without.
The second lesson to my effectiveness is the power of my imagination. My mum taught me that. My husband says it to me now, “I know that when you’re home, even if the fridge looks empty, the food will always appear”.
When I was growing up, I learned to make something out of nothing. When you grow up in relative poverty on an estate in South London, you learn to make things happen as no one is going to come along and make it happen for you.
My mother taught me to knit, sew, cook. She made me create and be resourceful. That creativity she instilled in me gave me the tools to see what isn’t there. I can now see the possibilities where others see nothing and have built up the resilience to try to realise them. Necessity is the mother of all invention – and in the Glebe Estate in Camberwell, we got inventing.
The final lesson that I learned from both of my parents was that there is no point in complaining- it gives you nothing. My parents are tenacious. They had resilience and respect deeply set in their bones and they instilled that in me. They always taught me that if you’re angry, turn that into momentum and do something about it but never complain or work yourself up. Complaining and anxiety are like friction – an energy that you can’t harness – it’s a waste. Whilst you’re complaining, you can’t be doing, and any other opportunities that are presented to you, you won’t see. Always do something about it.
I think it can all be boiled down to taking what you have today and using it to ensure we can all have tomorrow. Effective leadership is a masterclass in building relationships, being resourceful and imaginative and just getting things done – whether in a classroom or a large corporation. If you don’t master the delicate nuances of relationship management, you will struggle to get the respect and regard you should– you are more likely to be tolerated but you will never have loyalty. If you don’t harness the power of creativity, you will only ever think inside the box and your own scope will suffer. And if you spend all your time complaining about what you don’t have, or what you haven’t achieved, you will have no time to do something about it.
A lack of these qualities, amongst some others, makes for a very lonely journey in leadership. It often results in people becoming dependent on fear tactics to get the outcomes compassionate leaders inspire in others. Be an inspiration. Be more John and Elizabeth Osagie.
How do you manage yourself when facing adversity?
Not very well but we are all always learning. Because I am an organised person, I like things to go like clockwork. If I prepare and work hard and have faith in my purpose, I get very agitated if things don’t work out. Like all of us, I hate the curveballs that life throws at me and that hasn’t got easier as I’ve gotten older, but I have learnt to just get on with things. My approach I suppose is, cry quickly and move on.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from failure?
That you need to talk about your failures just as much as you talk about your successes. Failure hurts, and it’s hard to talk about it at the time (we often wait until it’s over and we are back in victory then we talk about failures). When I learnt to talk with someone I trust about failure and mistakes at the time of making them, I was able to reflect and cope easier.
When did you learn you could be unapologetic about your diversity?
I was never apologetic, that is the truth.
What made you dare to be different?
When I was at school, I was 2ft taller than the rest of the girls. My skin was darker. I had bigger feet, so didn’t wear the cute little pumps. I was clearly different, so didn’t have to dare to be. But my difference wasn’t just in my appearance, it was in my attitude.
I was raised in a highly principled, religious and Nigerian household. I greeted my parents with each passing and had a deep respect (and fear, hahaha) for them whilst other friends could get away with murder in their homes. Not in the Osagie household.
You did chores. You cooked for your family. I was never allowed a boyfriend. I couldn’t wear the clothes or afford the gadgets. I realised that I couldn’t buy normality and the standard idea of British normality wasn’t the culture in our home. I realised I would never be normal in a British context. I was in a Nigerian sense but not a British context. I didn’t see this as wrong though. I was comfortable in it and I firmly believe this was because of the values my parents taught me.
I found happiness in my difference. The values of not complaining and being resourceful. It wasn’t always easy but it was comfortable enough for me to know I was not wrong for being different.
I wish I could give you a fabulous profound answer to this question, but the truth is, I was born different and nothing was going to change that. It was not an option to be ordinary or mediocre. The expectation on my life from my childhood until today has always been to push for the courageous pathway and make things happen.
But my parents and their experiences set the foundation for me to dare to be different.