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Still Learning to Live with Leadership

Leadership has come at a cost for me and my family. I first wrote this blog over five years ago; recent events have led me back to it. I have updated it but the main messages are pretty much the same.  The challenges of leadership seem to be increasing in a World that is becoming more and more frenetic.

After fourteen years of headship my main regret/reflection was that I tried to do too much; I just tried too hard. When I first wrote this blog, I suggested, “We’re not in a crisis in education, in England, we are good but want to get better and more haste will not be the answer.”  Now I fear funding and teacher shortages are reaching crisis level.

This post is a series of random thoughts on surviving, thriving and enjoying leadership. My key concern is the sustainability of what we are currently expecting classroom, middle and senior leaders to do.

You’ve Got to Love the Job

Working and leading in schools is not for the faint hearted, there will be ups and downs, good days and bad days. Parents have entrusted us with their most precious possession, their children.  We need to feel the joy of journeying with them, if we are to find purpose in our professional lives. It won’t feel like a joy every moment nor necessarily every day, in fact whole weeks can sometimes be less than joyful, but when you take the long view do you actually love your job?

It Wasn’t the Hours I Worked it Was the Hours I Worried

Looking back over the past thirty years, it has been the inability to switch off that has been more relentless than the actual hours physically working. I may have stopped work hours before but my brain just keeps ticking over. My long suffering wife often ends up saying, “What are you thinking about, you’re not really listening?”, as my mind drifts in and out of another family conversation to a work issue or problem.  As the Headteacher there is no one to pass the problem to though a great Chair of Governors (I’ve been lucky) and supportive senior leadership teaman help share the load.

The worry I won’t miss.  Both the work and the worry will affect your work-home balance, you need to find a better way of dealing with it then I do.

Just a thought, most of the things I’ve worried about either haven’t happen or they weren’t the really big problems I had imagined them to be. Hopefully this will make some sense; because I am worrying about them, they are known, seen and planned for. It is the problems that come out of the blue, from no-where, one rainy morning or afternoon that hi-jack you.

People Come with Problems

By this I mean people come with problems and people come with problems.

I actually sort out very few problems. As a headteacher you will soon discover that most issues are sorted by other people particularly if you have a great team that you work with.  However, the ones that tend to land on your desk are the most complex. Colleagues will bring you problems that have proved difficult to sort. Sometimes it can be a parent who won’t be happy until they’ve seen the Head. You don’t actually do or say anything different they just accept it as the final word. Other times there is a level of complexity of decision making that will require your input as the leader.

Over time, I’ve developed a way of dealing with the few complex problems that come my way. Meeting with the person is important to clarify exactly what the concern or complaint is.  I always put this in writing to check I have understood the issues.  This also demonstrates that you are dealing with it and their concern is important to the organisation. Make sure the investigation and gathering of data is thorough and seen from all viewpoints. Don’t rush to a decision but consider the evidence carefully. Meet again with the person to explain your decision and follow it up in writing. I’m not Solomon, I don’t always get it right, I just make the best decision I can.

Some colleagues have difficult and complex lives whilst others can go through difficult and complex times. Trying to balance the needs of the individual and the organisation will be a challenge. A teacher not in front of a class or a member of support staff not carrying out their job often puts pressure on others, it isn’t great for the students and can’t go on for ever.

However, failing to support people through difficult times produces an organisation where nobody in their right mind would want to work.  Staff go the extra mile and as a leader so must you.  Whether it is forgetting the rule book on who can or cannot go to a particular funeral, first day at school for children or the Christmas Play staff have a life outside of school – sometimes I forget this; work can become all consuming.  There is often no right or wrong answer to balancing the needs of different people rather a tension that most be managed.  Most of this work will be confidential, quiet and unseen.  What would your rule of thumb be when managing these situations so you are reasonable, equitable and balanced in each situation.

You’ll Have a Different Clock

It’s always a great moment when a colleague comes in and asks, “Are you busy?” I keep thinking one day I’ll actually give an honest answer but I think my face may have already done that. Both teachers and leaders have very busy lives but teachers have much fewer time slots to have that all important conversation.

A teacher’s life is ruled by routine and is very largely pre-organised. This may not seem obvious until either you retire or are promoted to a role where your classroom contact is more limited. For a teacher the timetable dictates your daily and weekly routine including to a large extent work outside normal school hours. The annual rhythm of students joining and leaving, coursework completion, writing reports and sitting examinations all add to a repeating pattern of organised work.

Time in leadership is different. Moving to Deputy Headship with a reduced timetable was totally disorientating to begin with. Sorting priorities, over different timescales and the flexibility to determine what to do next, came as a bit of a shock to me. Think about how you will organise and prioritise your workload when the school bell has less significance.

Avoid Ratner Moments

These are named after Gerald Ratner who had a successful chain of jewellery stores until a fateful speech in 1991, to the Institute of Directors, in which he was explaining his business strategy:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “because it’s total crap.”

Needless to say the business plummeted out of sight and you have to be of a certain age to remember the shops. The “regretted outburst” is another hi-jack that you will need to find a way of controlling.  What you say has far greater importance and weight when you are the leader of the organisation.  In the early days of headship, I sometimes had a quick conversation on the corridor with a colleague only to find out later what I had just said was now consider policy rather than a random thought.

The External Accountability Must Come to an End

I joined the profession in 1987. The following five years saw the Education Act 1988, the introduction of a National Curriculum, Baker Days (INSET Days), league tables, SATs and Ofsted; I don’t feel I can be held personally responsible for all of these. Without possibly realising it they will have shaped, influenced and affected me as a professional. The last thirty years have been the era of External Accountability.

As a leader I will always have one foot in that era but feel genuinely hopeful that the next thirty years may be a very different era.  Acting as a bridge, leading colleagues and the next generation of leaders from one era to another. The new era may see a more self-regulating profession that is certainly my hope. It needs to be an era where we have a greater professional capital, the autonomy and respect that goes with it, and move beyond good. This requires both greater trust and also time.

From January 2020, my life will be very different.  I won’t stop working all together but I have decided on two key requirements for any future work.

  1. I don’t want to line manage anyone; I don’t want to be line managed.  I’ve done organisations, it’s now time for a bit of freelance freedom.
  2. I will be highly responsible – I’ll demand high standards of myself – but I won’t submit to any kind of external accountability; been there and done that.

There are already a few organisations that have contacted me about future work.  I think leadership development/supporting leaders with school improvement are likely to be more my things alongside speaking at conferences/meetings, so I can still spend time with real people who are actually doing the job.



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