If a handshake is a reliable indication of personality, then the NAHT is on to a winner this year with its president, Steve Iredale. In a year which looks as though it could be one of the most challenging in the association's history, the Barnsley head's greeting is both vigorous and direct.
His no-nonsense style was a feature of this year's conference, with a startling rap of the gavel keeping the programme on track, lubricated by frequent jokes about his favourite tipple, Black Sheep Ale. He even punctured the bounce of Michael Gove whilst introducing him, pointing out that the Education Secretary's recent predecessors had on average managed two years in post... an anniversary which was then rapidly approaching.
A week into the job, and Steve has managed a couple of nights at home in Huddersfield with his wife Tessa before heading back to the Haywards Heath HQ for meetings before another week on the road. As his BlackBerry buzzes away on the table, you'd think that this is a man who's been dedicated to union work since joining the NAHT as a deputy head in 1988. And you'd be wrong.
"I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing anything like this. I'm not particularly aspirational for myself, just my kids and my school. They're the first thing I talk about: it's the job I love."
So how did he get involved in the union? "About 12 years ago I went to a meeting in the then teachers' centre, came out and bumped into the branch secretary who was trying to get anybody he could into the AGM. I said, it won't get me involved, will it? He said 'Trust me'.
"That was it really. I ended up on the committee. From then on I started to gradually take a bit more interest." The SATs campaign was the final push, elevating him "to a position I didn't expect to be in."
Given that one of the union's intentions for this year is to reinvigorate its branch structure, you might regard this as a bit of a cautionary tale. Far from it. Steve talks with passion of the extra depth the support system of the branch has brought to his working life, which is why he's passionate about giving the same opportunity to everyone in school leadership positions, particularly encouraging younger leaders.
"People don't get what the NAHT can do for them. I joined for protection and support and it's nothing more than that for many people. But we can demonstrate it's more than that. It's possibly the best CPD I've ever had. Meeting and sharing with other people, supporting colleagues in difficulty, is very tough when you first do it.
"It's important to get out of school and meet colleague head teachers, whether members of the NAHT or not. But it's become harder and harder for heads to get out.
"We can share the load in branch. But you have got to be willing to give of yourself and your time. You may get a call at 10.30 on Sunday night: you have to make yourself more accessible. But we've all got stuff to give, no matter whether you've got 20 years or 12 months of experience.
"Branch officials don't have all the knowledge, but we know where to go for it. And it can be important just to be a listening ear: that can be all somebody needs. Being a good listener is really important."
Heads, says Steve, are under pressure as never before and there is a real danger of "ending up in a bunker with the lid pulled down." This is why the NAHT's current drives are to encourage as many as possible to become active members, and why it is taking the radical step of looking at the possibility of offering a school improvement service to support schools which find themselves in challenging circumstances.
"It's a big challenge, but it's something we're interested in exploring. We can see massive benefit but there's a long way to go. Trade unions tend to operate as trade unions and offering that level of support is a form of CPD linked to improving teaching and learning. There's a massive challenge in there as well. There's no question of schools escaping: there would be the same challenges from us. School improvement would be the driving force as opposed to the current Ofsted regime."
Such a project would mean head teachers becoming involved to some extent "but clearly there's a danger of being out of school too long, although you tend to find as you do it more you have a very strong team behind you. Without that strong team, you cannot risk being out of school for a couple of days at a time."
Steve's support team, led by deputy head Jane Whiteley, are used to his absences after last year, when as vice-president he spent a couple of days a week on NAHT business and the rest in his school, Athersley South Primary in Barnsley. They're clearly a close-knit team: they all came to Conference to cheer him on, and at one point Steve returned from working away to find a sign on his office door, reading "Due to under-occupancy this room has now been re-designated as a Staff Relaxation Zone". Inside were cushions, drapes, Gregorian chants and perfumed candles... and no sign of his desk.
But, he says, it's an indication of the huge stresses of being a head now that his own very capable deputy has no desire to take on the job. "She would be great, but she takes one look at me and she doesn't want to do it," he says.
"I have never known the pressure to be so intense in my job, and it's harder protecting my staff from it. You become a shield and it's very hard getting out of school.
"Morale is at rock bottom. There seems to be a lack of coherence in Government policy, though they would argue differently. There's a fragmentation of the system and it's hard to work out the rationale."
Accordingly, he is looking forward to his first formal meeting with the Secretary of State for Education. "We have a lot to discuss, me and Michael. I'd like to see eye to eye, but I'm not sure we shall.
"We want to work with Government, and I am very clear we will. But I also expect our views to be taken account of on certain issues." Assessment is "still a biggie," he says, adding that those views will include the planned spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) tests due for 2013, currently causing disquiet.
Another concern is Ofsted, and the public pronouncements of Sir Michael Wilshaw, who had recently cast doubt on the notion that head teachers might be stressed. "You begin to wonder where he's taking it with these fairly damaging pronouncements. What's he doing? Why's he doing it?"
He adds: "There's got to be an inspection regime, I'm absolutely fine with that and school improvement - but it's being taken to the Nth degree.
"If we're not careful it will be such a drain on the profession. People can't face another inspection. Who will replace them is my fear."
Spending much of the next year literally on the road, it's clear he'll be taking the temperature of the profession constantly in what looks increasingly like a crucial year, as the draft curriculum and the results of the Ofsted consultation finally emerge and the Government gives details of the form it expects the SPAG tests to take. He has set up a blog site [http://nahtsteve.wordpress.com] so that everyone can see what he's doing and thinking, and where he can follow up all the meetings he's had with any further outcomes.
He is, he says, keen to show people what the NAHT can do, and is equally adept at both the face-to-face social networking of branch and meeting and the virtual form of blog and Twitter. He can be followed @SteveIredale
And he intends to speak up for the profession he loves. "You've got to be proactive to be President... and I want to actually make a difference. If politicians don't like it, it's interesting times. But we'll negotiate our way."
Asked whether he's enjoying being President, there's an uncharacteristically long silence before he replies: "I am enjoying the opportunity to have more time to put into the NAHT without running a school."
You can take the head teacher out of the school, but you can't take the school out of the head teacher: when we meet, it's SATs week and he's wondering if the writing paper will be on a subject his pupils can relate to. "On the school website there's a little section called Mr Iredale On Tour, and there's some lovely blogs. I am missing the kids and staff. That's very honest but I am." And with supportive parents at his school, he's very keen on one of the union's other aspirations for the year, which is to forge closer relationships with parents to counter the seemingly endless public rhetoric of education not being good enough.
Steve, 56, a keen cricket fan and organic gardener, is clearly a doer, and proud of the simple achievement of replacing bottled lager at the Conference wine reception with real ale. "It went down very well," he beams, flashing his Campaign for Real Ale card out of his wallet.
Despite his concerns, Steve remains relentlessly positive and has his own improvement plan for the English education system, colourfully expressed by email from Belfast when I ask for more detail: "I think in a nutshell I would like to see the government and DfE demonstrate trust in the profession through actions not just rhetoric! Let's see consultation really being consultation and the voice of the experts (us) being heeded. I think the big win would be seeing our alternative model of inspection linked to ongoing school improvement with of course all the necessary challenge and raising standards being seen as a way forward. And wouldn't it be great to find unions of all persuasions finding common ground on key issues?"
Steve was talking to education journalist Susan Young.