Return to Calm
The unexpected happens, how we maintain a sense of calm when all around seems to be in chaos shows our true character. At a time when there has been so much uncertainty, so many opinions, conflicting views, shifting landscapes and changing narratives that it has left many feeling drained, confused and looking for guidance, we need leaders who will return us to calm. Successful leaders know how to eliminate the noise, return to a central equilibrium and focus on what matters. Leaders who are able to bring those they lead to an environment of calm will be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves as we emerge from this pandemic.
In times of uncertainty we look to our leaders for direction. How they react to changing circumstances and obstacles sets the tone for others to follow. Whilst reputations precede us and shape how others look at us, our character is what emerges in times of turmoil and places our strengths and weaknesses clearly on display for all to see. When these moments arrive you see the true colours of those that lead, as the pressure mounts and the uncertainty increases do they remain calm and steady the ship or do they scramble and fuel a sense of panic and uncertainty. The latter creates a level of anxiety that can ripple across an organisation and intensify as it spreads, destabilising an already tilting ship.
I found that the most successful leaders approach uncertainty with a level of acceptance which seems to settle the nerves of those they lead and instils confidence that the challenge presented is not insurmountable. They tend to shift the language from we are presented with a problem, to we are presented with an opportunity to look through a new lens, which demonstrates an attitude of acceptance and directs focus away from the chaos towards the task at hand and the process that needs to be followed. In short, successful leaders acknowledge the challenge and don’t get caught up in emotion, they remain self aware, managing their emotions and thought processes. They understand that whilst they may not have control of external factors, they do have control of how they react to the environment around them. Strong leaders manage to portray a sense of calmness even though they may be scrambling inside.
As the uncertainty emerges strong leaders step up to the plate. They remain patient and try not to act impulsively gathering as much information as they can before choosing a path. They look objectively at possible solutions identifying what they can control and what is beyond their sphere of influence, listening attentively for any additional information that may assist in providing a roadmap out of the current predicament. By maintaining a calm environment people will be more comfortable to come and share information, ideas and solutions with you. In times of crisis information is critical, if you create an environment that is calm and encourages sharing and collaboration you are more likely to have access to the relevant information at the right time. Clearly and confidently articulating very deliberate choices and reasons for next steps eases the anxiety of those you lead and encourages a sharp focus on a plan for the future.
Uncertainty brings with it a degree of pressure which seems to increase as the uncertainty continues. At this time bringing a level of perspective and balance is vitally important. Too many people start to catastrophize and lead down a negative path imagining all the things that could go wrong. Thinking logically about possible scenarios, whilst not downplaying any possible negative outcomes, is a skill that some have naturally but many of us develop through experience. Those with experience will notice cycles in their industry and will be able to use this knowledge to provide balance and perspective of lessons learned previously. Past experiences allow you to get a read on possible scenarios, think through previously tabled solutions and look for any similarities to use as a starting point for discussion. Drawing on this knowledge or talking to others who may possess it is a key strategy when faced with mounting chaos.
When the challenge arises and others scramble for cover, strategic leaders demonstrate a level of vulnerability, acknowledging that there may be no obvious solutions available but balance this with a calm determination that there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome. Whilst vulnerability will be welcomed by some it is a fine line between this and sending an unconscious message that you may be in over your head. It is critically important to use your EQ and read the room to know just how much to open up. This is a time when your team needs to feel confident that you are the person that can lead them out of this scenario. Starting your address with “I’m not sure how we get through this’ will lose those you lead regardless of what follows next. Research has shown that leaders who appear calm are viewed as more capable and are able to build the trust of those they lead more readily. Those you lead will be more willing to listen and take direction from you if you appear to have everything under control.
When the chaos comes and it will, think about the steps below to get you through.
- Slow Down – Take a few deep breaths and clear your head. Sometimes the clock is ticking and the faster you try to problem solve the more mistakes you make. When you slow down you can process information more accurately which allows you to be more deliberate in your actions and choices.
- Ask Questions – Information is key at times of uncertainty. Ask questions, listen carefully and dig into answers. Sometimes when you ask the right questions the answers have a way of revealing themselves.
- Identify the Experts – No-one can have all the answers, understand that there are people with greater subject matter expertise than you. Identify them and seek their assistance.
- Focus – If this is the priority, all other things can wait. Give yourself a few minutes to focus by putting down the phone and stop checking your emails. If this really is a crisis then it needs your attention, stay focussed.
- Stay Optimistic – Regardless of how chaotic the time is there will be an end to it. Trust in your ability and that of your team. You will overcome this challenge and will seize the opportunities that lay ahead.
- Watch Your Messaging – Not just what you say but also your tone and body language. Those you lead will pick up on inconsistencies and subtitles in your messaging. Keep it clear, calm and consistent.
In leadership positions there are always time of uncertainty, being caught up in the ensuing chaos will serve no-one. As a leader in these situations you have a choice, create a calm environment or feed the chaos. Your role is to focus on what matters most at that time and in most cases it is keeping your people and organisation safe, the best way to do this is to lead with a calming confidence. Knowing that these times may be uncomfortable and accepting it and leaning into the discomfort rather than finding ways to avoid it will be what separates you from other leaders. Our instincts will be to duck and weave, that’s basic self preservation but in times of chaos we all have a choice, step up, stay calm and lead through.
Have you ever walked into a room where you can feel the energy straight away, it almost hits you in the face as you enter. Sometimes it’s an upbeat positive vibe that’s almost tangible and at others it’s an uncomfortable negative energy that seems to suck the oxygen out of a room. If you can feel it when you walk into a room, you’d imagine that those in the room are living the same experience, immersed in a powerful emotional melting pot. In a workplace, these emotionally charged environments can impact the ability of those in the room to interact, function and perform their roles. The transference of emotions can be done unconsciously without any verbal exchange through facial expressions, postures, sounds and other non-verbal cues. In some settings, emotions transfer from one person to another and can intensify causing them to spread rapidly. This spontaneous spreading of emotions is known as emotional contagion and has the ability to significantly impact the success of an organisation.
We are generally not aware of emotional contagion until we are in the midst of a surge of emotions. If you’ve ever been to a concert there is generally a feeling of excitement prior to the performance and then a surge of emotion sweeps the crowd as the performers take to the stage. This collective surge of emotion can be extremely powerful and can energise even the most reserved member of an audience. There has been a great deal of research conducted on emotional contagion to understand this powerful driver and its impact on individuals and groups. There is no denying that emotions influence behaviours and alter thought patterns. Understanding the significance this has on group dynamics and individual performance is a vital component of a leader’s armoury.
During human interactions, we know that people have a tendency to mirror the emotional state of the person they are interacting with, so understanding how positive or negative emotions influence positive or negative behavior can assist you when leading a team. By paying attention to emotions in the workplace and consciously working to shape them, you can potentially amplify belonging, connectedness and positivity leading to increased levels of performance. Alternatively, by ignoring them and glossing over emotions that run through an organisation you can run the risk of allowing feelings to grow that could be counterproductive to what you are aiming to achieve. Leaders who understand the impact and influence of emotional wellbeing know that monitoring the emotional health of an organisation goes a long way to building a successful culture.
Understanding how emotional contagion works and being aware of it assists you with identifying areas in your team where it may be more prevalent than others. People can’t always put into words how they are feeling and some are reluctant to share how they feel, so looking for emotional subtitles is important. In our work environments, dominant emotions can alter group behaviour. Once a person succumbs to the dominant emotion it can stay with them for the whole day and even transfer from setting to setting influencing each environment they enter. If it’s a positive emotion then that’s ok, if on the other hand it is one of negativity and pessimism then we need to intervene quickly. Negative emotions are extremely powerful and tend to spread more rapidly so looking for any shift in the positive to negative ratio of conversations, ideas and solutions can give great insight into the emotional wellbeing of your team members. If we recognise any shift, we must make a conscious attempt not to buy into the emotion avoiding any triggers that may lead us down a similar path. Just like any contagion, emotional contagion needs a host to spread. As the leader, you don’t want to be the one spreading negativity.
Effective leaders consciously model the emotions they want to cultivate in their organisation. They have an ability to show up in each interaction or new environment in the right emotional state regardless of what is going on below the surface or behind the scenes, it’s almost like they have an emotional mask. These emotional masks allow leaders to project to those they interact with the preferred emotional response required at the appropriate time. It’s not that they are being false or misrepresenting themselves, it is more that they are aware of the impact their emotions can have on others. There is evidence to suggest that people tend to adopt and copy the tiny communicative behaviours of those they engage with and in doing so are willingly led down the path of acquiring the same emotional state. So leaders who are able to manage their emotions and use them successfully during interactions are better equipped to leave an environment with the right emotional setting before they exit. Understanding emotional contagion allows you to manage any spread by recognising the signs and adjusting environmental settings accordingly.
In a workplace, emotional contagion can have a significant impact as the emotions of one or two individuals can flow over and have a ripple effect across the entire team. When emotional contagion takes hold of a group it can be a difficult space for a leader to navigate. If you notice your team in the grips of emotional contagion trying to immediately dampen the mood can actually be counterproductive as there may be a feeling you are trying to ‘shut it down’. It’s important to allow people to present their grievances in an appropriate way. I’m not suggesting that we openly encourage public displays of dissatisfaction, but remaining calm and giving time for the emotion to drain from the room allows you to try to shift thinking towards more constructive conversations focused on solutions. As the leader you need to control the temperature in the room, people will look to you to see how you adjust the gauge to either raise the heat or cool it down, they will take their cues from you. If you are combative then you’ll get this mirrored back at you, if you are open, considered and calm, then there is more of a chance this may be reciprocated. I’m not naïve enough to think that remaining calm will reduce the temperature in a room, but the alternative will certainly not. Demonstrating that there is always a way forward sets an expectation and tone that there is an achievable resolution.
We know that when we are around positive people we are more positive. If someone smiles at you try not to smile, it’s hard, in a crowd where there is laughter try not to laugh, this too is difficult. We know that negative emotions are the most powerful in terms of their ability to spread. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we keep our emotions in check and identify how we are feeling before, during and after each interaction. Having the ability to identify and regulate how you are feeling is going to be an extremely powerful tool. As a leader, you potentially have the greatest influence over the culture you are trying to create. Emotional contagion can have positive effects on those we lead, if we set the tone. As you go about your work, think carefully about how you would like to leave each environment once you have left it. I personally can think of only one way. When you next walk into a room make a conscious effort to smile and bring positive energy and watch the room join you. Those you lead are not emotional islands; they’ll look to you to see which way the wind is blowing and if you get it right they will be swept along with your positivity.
Down in the Weeds
Have you ever heard of someone being in the weeds? I’m not talking about gardening Australia rescuing the petunias. I’m talking about when there are multiple streams of information coming at you all at once and you find yourself lost in the details, unable to rise above and see the bigger picture. Many of us believe the only way to deal with it, is to roll up the sleeves, grab a second cup and slog through. As leaders we obviously need to know the details, we need to have access to all relevant information and we need to be able to use this to make decisions. What is potentially more critical though is that we are able to immediately direct our attention where it is needed at any point in time and understand how our efforts will fit into the bigger picture. In leadership positions the hours can be long, the tasks can be demanding and if we are not focussing our energy where it needs to be we may be adding little value to the work we are entrusted with. Getting caught up in the minuscule and being sucked into the detail vortex drags us into the weeds and potentially detracts our attention from what’s important, sending us down a slippery slope which may have unintended consequences.
Unfortunately for some leaders they spend too much time amongst the weeds and lose sight of what’s important. It can happen to all of us at some point in time when work mounts up and we start to feel like we have lost the reins. It’s here that you’ll start to use the ‘if I just’ statements. If I just had some more time, If I had just done it myself, If I had just watched that more closely, If I can just get this done. When this happens you are well and truly in the weeds. Weighed down by tasks that are better left to subject matter experts who have the knowledge, skills and technical expertise to complete the tasks required. Living in the weeds is not leadership, climbing out of them and building the capacity of others to help navigate through them is the role of an effective leader. Our most effective leaders never spend too long here, they recognise that this will prevent them from doing the most important task they have as a leader and that is to develop those they lead.
As you head down into the weeds you start to leave the leadership role and head into the role of management. The weeds are generally the tasks that can be delegated to those you lead who have direct contact with the matter at hand. The trap for those new into leadership is that they try to keep up the illusion that they are in total control and have full coverage of all areas. When you get into the weeds you start requesting all the details to ensure things are on track and then start to put in place systems and structures to avoid this happening again which require a constant stream of information being available to you. This then leads to following up in minute detail each element of an initiative or program in an attempt to ensure that all the moving parts stay on track. By doing this, you hope, you can keep it all on track, keep everyone in their lane and ensure that all programs are completed on time, every time. This may get the job done but the unintended consequences can erode trust and disempower those you lead as you enter the realm of the micromanager.
Unfortunately, with all best intentions micromanagement has consequences for those we lead. Whilst the intentions may be pure, the behaviour tends to disempower. Micromanagers spend a great deal of time examining the work of their team and less time focusing on the things that really matter. As I’ve said previously it’s great to be across all elements of your work but trusting that those you lead have the skills and capabilities to produce what is needed for you is an essential part of leadership. When leaders start to micromanage this filters down through the organisation and drives a pattern of behaviour that does nothing to help promote a positive culture. If things are not happening as they should then coaching and mentoring is the pathway rather than micromanaging. As a leader you have two courses of action here: either you trust your subject matter experts who are in the weeds working with their teams or you head down there and start to make the decisions. Whilst option two may be required on some occasions if it becomes the norm rather than fertilising the ground to prosper you are stifling any growth that may occur. What also creeps in is a feeling by those you lead that you are creating work for the sake of it as you remove any control they have on their area of expertise. Come up from the weeds and direct traffic from the balcony, you’ll get a clearer picture and will be able to see how all the avenues of work intersect.
One proven method to help stay out of the weeds is to delegate. Delegation is an art form that must be learnt and mastered to be truly effective. Delegating to get things off your desk has no real impact other than to lighten your load. Understanding the skills and capabilities of those in your team and delegating to their strengths is an effective and efficient strategy used by our most capable leaders. There are days when it is necessary to get down into the weeds and there is nothing wrong with being a hands-on leader, working shoulder to shoulder to guide, coach or learn with your colleagues, this is a valuable part of leadership. It’s when the fulcrum tips and you start to do tasks for those you lead, impacting on their professional capacity to perform their role that you’ve gone too far. This moves into micromanagement territory which can lead to a loss of trust and disharmony. By micromanaging you are placing all your energy in areas where there are usually quite capable people already working on a solution. In doing so you are taking away the decision making process from those you lead. Smart leaders harness the skills and experience of those they lead and align them to the right initiatives freeing themselves up to make the decisions that matter. It’s always intrigued me why some leaders have experts on their team but fail to take their advice because it does not sit with their agenda. If a surgeon tells me I need urgent surgery I’m not questioning them because it will ruin my plans for the weekend, I’m getting the surgery. We should continually strive to effectively utilise the skills and experience of those we lead to help guide our decisions.
As mentioned earlier there will be times when you need to take a deep dive into the weeds to see first hand what is occurring. Whilst on the surface this could appear to be an attempt to micromanage, I’d prefer to look at it as a coaching opportunity. The difference is the purpose of your deep dive. If we use this as a coaching opportunity it allows you to work alongside colleagues, providing guided and constructive advice to enhance capability and refine skills. Micromanaging on the other hand is pushing colleagues to the side and completing the task for them. A coach sets expectations and goals whereas a micromanager sets boundaries and parameters. It may sound like semantics but it all hinges on the intent of the leader. Is it a punitive approach to show why someone is not achieving or is it a learning opportunity to build capacity? From my experience the latter is the most effective path.
As work starts to pile up there are a few questions I ask myself to help stay above the weeds. Does this really require my attention or can it be delegated? Who has the expertise to complete this task? How will I get reliable and accurate information about this when I need it? Does it need to be done now? By answering these questions I am able to, for the most part, stay out of the weeds. It’s worth considering what structures you have in place that allow you to get authentic feedback and real time information when required? How have you empowered and built trust with those you lead to ensure they alert you to any potential issues and offer solutions before they turn into bigger issues. When we get the information we must decide if we need to get down in the weeds or just ask the right questions to assist in gathering enough information to develop a solution. By asking coaching questions of those we entrust to run programs and initiatives we will in most situations develop the right solutions. I’ve found when people come to you for solutions they usually have something in mind. Your role is to ask questions so they can develop the solution, which in turn gets buy-in as there is a sense of ownership. By using this approach you allow the solutions to grow out of the weeds.
Spending our days in the weeds is not the most effective form of leadership. I’m not suggesting that we don’t want to know the details, it is important that we have that information at hand. Obviously when we are mapping out a plan or a strategy the specific details are a crucial component and tracking progress against details are key to keeping things on track. It’s when this becomes your daily work and you remove the responsibility of those you lead to make informed decisions that you need to rethink your approach. Developing effective systems and structures that become the norms of how you operate provide scaffolds to work within and should remove the need for you to micromanage. Building a culture of open and honest communication where a wide variety of views are accepted, not always agreed to, but certainly heard, will empower those you lead to make decisions, voice opinions and trust that when you make the final decision you have done so after considering all the evidence available. This will keep you out of the weeds and allow you to focus your energy on achieving successful outcomes for those you are entrusted to serve. When you next start down that path, take a minute to ask yourself what’s important and who on my team have I entrusted with this task. If you’ve built capacity and trust, those you lead will be skilfully navigating the weeds for you. Leadership is about building the right conditions for things to flourish, if you achieve this the weeds will take care of themselves.
Creatures of Habit
I’m not sure that there is one dominant leadership trait that rises above all others in the litany of leadership traits that surround us. It seems all too easy to adopt a single trait as the most influential and you’ll be leading with the best of them. The one constant element is that leadership is about developing your skills with the right balance of knowledge to compliment your skill set. The art of leadership really is about doing, it’s about the way in which you behave, interact, listen, guide, support and make decisions. Essentially it’s a set of behaviours. Identifying what works for you in your context and repeating it to form the habits that work best for you is where the power lies. What are the skills you need to lead in your context? How do you develop those? How do you know they are working? Once identified it’s a matter of repeatedly using them until this behaviour becomes automatic.
There’s plenty of research and leadership development courses available that identify the behaviours required to successfully lead. Whether they align with your philosophy, values or beliefs is ultimately up to you. What the self help guides don’t necessarily articulate is that these behaviours are only successful if they are sustained. If it was as simple as attending a course, reading a book or watching a lecture we’d all be leadership experts. How often have we returned from a professional development opportunity enthused and brimming with confidence about the new method, strategy or technique only to implement them for a period of time before we revert back to what we know and what is comfortable. For these new methods to stick they have to become automatic elements of your repertoire.
When you got up this morning did you have to think about how you poured your coffee, ate your breakfast or brushed your teeth? For most of us these things happen automatically without a great deal of thought. We’ve performed these tasks so often that they have become automatic aspects of our daily life that require little thought or effort to complete. In fact our brains actually require these automatic habits to conserve energy to allow us to complete the more complex tasks in our day. Have you ever had one of those occasions when you were driving to a particular destination only to realise you were heading somewhere else just purely out of habit. According to a study conducted by Duke University about 40% of the decisions we make each day are based on habitual routines not conscious thought. Habits are ingrained and difficult to break.
Understanding how habits are formed is essential for reinforcing current habits or developing new ones. It seems easy, set a goal, establish a routine and follow it through with positive reinforcement and constructive conversation. Unfortunately it’s never that easy. Passion and enthusiasm only lasts so long. The reality is it is much harder than that. Good or bad, habits are just a response to some form of cue. To develop a habit you need to do two things: break the old and develop the new. Repetition of the desired behaviour and practice really are the only way. Habits form when we deliberately repeat the behaviour in the same environment. By doing this we use environmental cues to help solidify the behaviours. Identifying what triggers the habit (the cue) and making a conscious choice to replace it with an alternative is the most successful method of changing a habit. Replacing the old with the new so we stop doing one thing and start doing another.
In leadership positions though it can be challenging to develop new habits. When we start to lead a new team we observe how things operate, how people interact, how the work streams get managed and how we measure success. From these observations we then start to put our own influence on them to try to improve, enhance or solidify the traits that we believe are successful and align with our vision for the team. How do we do this? We develop norms, rituals, observable behaviours that we want to see to allow the team to enhance what they do. We attempt to develop new habits within our teams. We often face resistance and a push to maintain the status quo especially if the new habits are difficult to maintain. This is the work of developing culture and can take time. What also takes time but will have just as a dramatic impact is developing your own leadership habits. Developing good habits in your own leadership plays a significant part in your overall effectiveness and as an extension the success of your organisation. The only proven method that I know to become a better leader is to refine your leadership skills through systematic and sustained practice. Consistent and persistent practice turns everyday behaviours into automatic habits. We want our successful leadership behaviours to become habitual parts of how we lead. Excellence in leadership is not a one off win, it’s not that one great idea or initiative it’s a sustained pattern of behaviour that drives your organisation to achieve.
To do this, it would be worth asking those you lead to complete some form of survey that identities the leadership behaviours that you display. There are a variety of them out there. You’ll need some courage to do this because there may be some insights revealed that have been blind spots for you because they are habits you may not realise you have. The results will indicate which ones are positive and which ones you need to work on. From here you can start to look deeper into the results to try to identify patterns or triggers that lead you to behave in a particular manner at certain times. It’s always good practice to discuss the results and your own insights with a trusted colleague who can serve as a critical friend by asking probing questions. Once you have some insights it’s good practice to write down your daily routine and try to map out the behaviours you default to in each situation. Which ones are the positives, which are the ones for refinement and what can you discard. Those habits you need to let go of can be the most challenging to work on. Look for little behaviours that you do without consciously thinking about them; these are the ones that you should work on first. I find having some form of physical reminder available as a trigger can assist here. I have a little red tag on the top page of my diary each day that reminds me to ask more questions and not try to solve the problem too quickly. Small physical cues can help to keep you on track and remind you of the habit you are trying to break.
Like most things we like to get a few quick wins on the board. Unfortunately with habits they are generally so ingrained that it takes time to cement the change you are trying to see. You are going to have to be motivated and be prepared for the long haul. There may be no quick wins here and unfortunately this can drain motivation levels and leave you feeling like you are spending too long in the learning pit. This is where your EQ will have to kick in and you’ll have to draw on your resilience, grit and apply a healthy sense of optimism. One way to assist here is to look for tiny changes that can be made rather than a large scale overhaul. It may be that you keep the same routine and consciously substitute one small behaviour for another. You’ll have to be mindful of the old habits that are still firmly in place trying to influence your behaviour. This is where a critical friend can offer assistance. Sharing what you are trying to achieve with a trusted colleague is a good way to get an independent read on how you are travelling towards developing a new habit.
Whilst leadership can be heavily influenced by the leader’s personality and ability to connect with people it is ultimately their behaviour that makes or breaks them. It’s the leader’s ability to continually perform and build a culture that people want to be part of that sets them apart from the pack. The habits we display can be powerful predictors of our success. It’s worth taking time to really examine how you go about your day to identify the habitual routines and decision making processes you’ve established to see what impact they are having on your leadership. As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit. You never know a small change or adjustment may make a significant difference to not only your success but to the entire culture of your organisation.
The Strange Paradox with Vulnerability
Some of the biggest challenges to leading with vulnerability are the structures around us that project the perfect ideal. This can be our own immune systems that we develop to protect our sense of self or the social construct of our organisations that fuel our shared assumptions about leadership. We must change the narrative that describes vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Whilst in professional circles it is good to project an image of a leader who is at the top of their game, has all the answers and is considered on every occasion, it can leave you chasing an unattainable reality. If you are seen as the all-knowing leader you run the risk of discouraging those you lead from speaking up and offering opinions as they may feel they are not able to live up to the image you project. Sometimes allowing those you lead in so they can get to know other aspects of your personality builds trust and develops culture. It’s reassuring for those you lead to know that you too have days when you are not always the highly polished leader you appear to be.
Unfortunately it’s been built into our DNA that leaders are strong, bold and all knowing. Our leaders are placed on pedestals and from that vantage point it’s not a widely accepted position to show any form of weakness or uncertainty. Whilst there has been a volume of research conducted to dispel this myth there is still that little voice inside each of us that casts enough doubt to make us pause, rethink and try to talk our way out of any situation. If there is one thing I’ve realised throughout the pandemic it’s that we’re pretty vulnerable. I’m not sure many people were able to predict the seismic shift that the pandemic has had on the world. This has really highlighted that some of us are better prepared to deal with uncertainty than others. What I’ve observed is that there are occasions when we must lead from the front and times when we must stand next to those we lead and admit our vulnerabilities.
I’m not suggesting that being vulnerable means you must fully disclose all your faults at all times. It certainly doesn’t mean that you tell those you lead all the details about everything that is happening, or that you fall on the floor, sobbing in an open display of insecurity. You have to have boundaries in your leadership. You need to be able to determine whom to share with and when. There will be certain people whom you can share with more openly than others, it’s about knowing your people and your audience. By displaying a level of vulnerability at the right time you can create a space that feels safe for others to be vulnerable and open to learning. In doing so you establish an environment where it’s ok to share a mistake and use it as a learning opportunity whereby creating a culture that recognises that we all have things to learn, we don’t hide or cover up our mistakes we use them as learning opportunities to ensure they don’t happen again. For this to occur you’ll have to let your guard down and open up. I’ve written previously about working in the discomfort zone, a place where we have doubts, where we question our skill set and we make comparisons with others ability to perform in similar situations. It’s a scary place to be at times, especially when we open ourselves up to criticism. We must avoid the natural reaction to become defensive. In this space you may hear negative feedback from those you lead and it may feel personal. Rather than seeing the feedback as an attack, use it as a learning opportunity by asking questions and digging deeper into responses to gain a better understanding. Trying to understand why this opinion has been formed is highly valuable. Using the information to adjust where necessary demonstrates that vulnerability is a constructive behaviour and creates authentic connections with teams. Putting yourself out there sets a tone for others to follow.
Like most skills, being vulnerable may require a degree of trial and error. It will take time to find your feet and know when and what to share. There will be times when you potentially over share or even share the wrong thing and this is all part of the process. It’s always good to reflect afterwards but don’t beat yourself up, learn from each experience. If you are not sure about stepping into this space I’d encourage you to consider a few things:
Start small – Just dip your toe in the water to see how deep you want to dive in. The last thing you want to do is jump in over your head and feel like you are in too deep.
Try with a trusted colleague – Who are your trusted colleagues that you can test this with? It’s like swimming between the flags with the lifeguards on patrol. They’ll make sure that you get the experience in a safe and productive way.
Seek to understand – Ask questions and get to the heart of the matter, actively listen, clarify and be prepared to answer difficult questions honestly.
Be self-aware – be truthful to yourself about what is going on for you emotionally and recognise how this may influence your behaviour. Try to identify the underlying assumption that is making you feel a particular way.
Modelling vulnerability allows those you lead to do the same which helps to break down silos and the self-protective walls that exist. Keeping up barriers takes energy that can be better spent working together in an environment of collaborative transparency. If you get it right you can develop a sense of belonging that will energise those you lead to reflect on and refine their practice because they will feel safe to do so. Nothing builds credibility like admitting that you don’t know it all. When those you lead see that you too can learn from mistakes it amplifies a learning culture.
You’re in the position because you’ve worked hard to get there and have the attributes to fulfil the role, you don’t have to be the perfect leader on every occasion. Trust your instincts, build your credibility by leading with a level of vulnerability. Remember a courageous leader shows up no matter the situation and responds with authenticity regardless of the personal challenge that’s presented. Vulnerability takes courage. We know that trust grows gradually, demonstrating to those you lead that you are human can only enhance trust in your leadership.
The strange paradox with vulnerability is that when we see others display it we believe they’re courageous, yet displaying it ourselves is like shining a spotlight on our own inadequacies. Showing vulnerability is challenging and managing the emotions that come with being in this space can be confronting especially when we identify the chinks we have in our armour. The reality is we all have weaknesses and admitting this will require a level of courage that may make some of us feel uncomfortable. If you’ve been in leadership long enough you will know that it’s inevitable that your team will come to the realisation that you don’t have all the answers. Understanding this and accepting it is more important than trying to keep up the illusion that we’re infallible. Shifting the language from I have all the answers to I want to get the right ones shows you are open to learning and have a level of maturity in your leadership. Strategically facing your challenges by taking advice and seeking support rather than racing towards the solution speaks volume of your ability to lead. There is a vast difference between being courageous and fearless. The fearless leader charges towards danger whereas the courageous leader weighs up all the evidence and makes an informed decision.
There’s been a great deal of talk about accountability and responsibility lately. As we’ve progressed through this pandemic the notions of being accountable and responsible are increasingly becoming part of the everyday conversation. In the current climate the terms are almost interchangeable. We see a wide variety of public commentary where those that are responsible for certain situations are also held accountable. We often hear leaders of organisations, systems or teams publicly announce that they are accountable for a result and will take full responsibility. Whilst this is admirable, there are slight but subtle differences between accountability and responsibility and I believe as leaders we need to understand this difference in order to clearly identify what it is that motivates those we lead to achieve the results we are looking for.
When we embark on the next iteration of a project or plan it is usually supported by us reviewing results and planning to accelerate what is successful and revising and refining areas that need improvement. This process is typically underpinned by some form of mechanism for measuring our impact in effect holding us accountable for the implementation of our plan. It can be here though where the term accountability runs the risk of changing the narrative. It’s almost like the term ‘accountability’ is being used to apply a consequential monitoring system. The inference that surrounds the discussion about accountability can make it seem like a punitive approach. In this instance accountability seems to remove the decision making processes and restricts the scope of a plan to a set of predetermined boundaries with a lineal path for achieving the outcome. It almost feels like an imposed rule. In short there’s no ownership. We know that as leaders those we lead are more encouraged to drive improvement when they feel they have been part of the planning and part of the design and can clearly see how their efforts will assist in achieving the desired outcome.
We’ve been conditioned to think of accountability as a compliance mechanism to get us to fulfil the demands of those that have authority over us. Through this lens accountability is almost like reliability where the organisation is held accountable for a particular result. Its process driven, fill the bucket with 500 beans, not 499, increase by 10% not 9%. In contrast responsibility is viewed very differently. When we think of responsibility there is a suggestion that it has a greater underlying purpose. Being responsible plays to the greater good, there’s a humanness to responsibility that can be perceived to be lacking in accountability. When we develop a mindset of personal responsibility my view would be that we are holding ourselves accountable. It may sound a little like semantics but I think the mindset of personal responsibility means that we do what we are supposed to do because we care about the result whereas when we achieve through overarching accountability there is a different and potentially less powerful motivation. With accountability there is a perception that we achieve because someone else has told us too. This slight shift almost abdicates our moral purpose and as leaders it’s understanding our purpose that really drives momentum and gets a shift in results. Taking personal responsibility for our choices and owning the role we play in an initiative is critical if we are to achieve successful outcomes.
By having those in our teams choosing to take responsibility we invite people to bring their expertise, skills and experience to the table. We encourage personal mastery, narrowing in on the individual skills and sharing expertise. In doing so we have the ability to identify and guide an individual’s point of implementation which will ultimately assist in driving accountability across our teams. Each individual knows exactly where their touch point is, what is expected and how it contributes to the overall picture. When people own their own choices there is an opportunity for real action. Taking responsibility is a conscious choice. Making that choice and understanding our purpose allows us to leverage the strong emotional attachment that is created when we have skin in the game.
Unlike accountability where feedback usually occurs at the conclusion of an initiative, responsibility allows for ongoing feedback generating refinement and continuous improvement. You know if you are personally on track, discussing your role and your progress with colleagues should become a regular part of the process. Having open and honest conversations about your individual progress towards the achievement of your role in the plan is a vital part of overall achievement. I spoke to a colleague recently about the concept of giving it your best shot. She argues that it’s not your best shot we want, it’s the ability to make the next one better than that and the next even better that that. This idea that as individuals we should always be striving to improve, seeking feedback on individual performance and refining our efforts where possible is at the heart of personal responsibility. You may be able to explain away results to others but you can’t hide the truth from yourself. Working towards all members of our team taking personal responsibility and supporting them to meet it will strengthen our systems and maintain momentum.
Don’t get me wrong we need accountability. As leaders we are ultimately accountable for the success of our plans. Without personal responsibility though we can rationalise accountability away claiming that it’s up to others to meet the targets. Personal responsibility places the onus firmly on us to make it happen. Each individual has to keep on top of their progress in an initiative making them an active participant in its success and not a passive bystander in its failure. This ensures that at every level there are people working towards putting all pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately enhancing the opportunity to reach the goal. We are all accountable, but if you want to amplify results identify and mobilise the personal responsibility that underpins it all. I believe we get more from our team when results come from an intrinsic motivation that is more aligned with our sense of responsibility than a numerical value developed through an accountability lens. Being personally invested brings with it a very different mindset.
As educators we aim to make a positive impact on the lives of students. This is an enormous responsibility. We’re not making chocolate biscuits, if one falls off the production line we can’t just sweep it up and ice the next one. Parents don’t have a spare at home for us to have another crack at. We build great people, that’s our product. As a leader I certainly have an eye of the accountability mechanism I’m working towards but it’s the enormity of the personal responsibility I have to educate students that weighs heavily on me. As we transition from this pandemic accountability has to be strong. We have to intensify our efforts. If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that we can do things differently, we have the capability and agility to pivot and achieve the impossible. It has dramatically transformed the way we work, the way we interact and the way we engage in our contexts. As we move forward all of us have to think deeply about the personal responsibility we have in our contexts. What is our individual role? How can we strive every day to ensure we are meeting it? How do we hold ourselves accountable? Our collective efforts are needed like never before. We can be divided by issues of accountability or united by purpose, one fuelled by individual responsibility. As I’ve said, I believe we are comfortable with accountability. The challenge we face is ensuring all members of our team fulfil their personal responsibility as this is the foundation for achieving results
The Implementation Gap
Regardless of your profession the outcome is reliant on how well you execute. All the planning, professional learning, strategy and ingenuity in the world will make no difference if you are unable execute with fidelity. When the rubber hits the road it’s the implementation gap that’s hinders progress.
We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to determine why some of our initiatives are not making the gains they are intended to and why some are driving forward exceeding expectations. We analyse, hypothesis, review and try to identify the specific strategies that have been successful. Why is it that this one worked and this one was not as successful? In my opinion we sometimes over-complicate our analysis and need to look at one simple but vital question, how well did we implement? Why is it that the plan we formulate is not always the plan that is implemented? You see ideas are easy, execution is more complex.
We know that successful outcomes can be found when they are underpinned by research. Given the global connectedness we have available today there are not many professions that are not awash with research. In short we are generally able to analyse data, draw conclusions, consider a strategy and find some research to back up our plan. For the most part we have access to high quality professional learning, in most instances we are afforded time to participate in professional learning, partake in collaborative discussion and design a plan of action that we believe best meets the needs of the context within which we work. What then happens in many cases is that we return to our individual environments and begin to implement the plan. Now in many cases we have observations, walk throughs, instructional rounds and opportunities to observe and discus how well we execute; however what happens when no-one is watching. What happens when it gets hard and you’re tired and it’s not going to plan? For many of us we revert back to what we know. I often think about going to the gym. I know how to do the exercises. I’ve had a personal trainer show me how to use the equipment. I know what ‘good form’ looks like when I have to execute an exercise movement or a routine, but when I get tired and no-one is watching the first things that goes out the window is my ability to do the exercises precisely as they are intended, my elbows come out, my legs don’t fully extend, I move a little slower. In other words I take short cuts. Strategies and initiatives do not fail on their own. It’s our disciplined attention to implementation that is the most consistent impediment to success.
The main issue for us to overcome with the implementation of any initiative or strategy is the change in behaviour of those tasked with its implementation. Medical research is littered with countless reports of people not following advice provided for treatment of medical issues. How many of us have started a course of antibiotics only to forget to take the last two or three tablets because we felt better. The World Health Organisation reports that 50% of scripts prescribed for treatment of illnesses are not taken correctly and 40% of patients do not adhere to their treatment regimes. Changing behaviour is difficult even when faced with the prospect of your own health. With this in mind it can be increasingly difficult to change behaviour when implementing new skills and knowledge in a profession.
Overcoming behavioural changes will be critical. There are a few strategies that you can implement that can assist. Firstly you need to have a series of short term wins and you need these quickly. It’s no surprise that immediate positive reinforcement of the desired changes to behaviour are more likely to embed the behavioural changes you are seeking. Its basic psychology. This is where side by side and shoulder to shoulder support is so important. To have your peers working alongside you in your context, guiding, supporting and encouraging allows you to trial the new strategy with the confidence that you have a safety net. If it’s not working as intended you have someone there with you to adapt, refocus and try again. Without this safety net it’s easy to think this won’t work and revert back to previous techniques. Having someone there to assist you and share in your successes is a key factor in successful implementation. Creating conditions that allow for this close level of collaboration will be a vital structure when supporting fidelity of implementation.
Another one of the difficulties with implementation is that the landscape is constantly changing and we need to be agile enough to adapt. When we plan we are planning for a static environment, however as soon as we interact the environment changes and we are faced with new elements that we may not have considered. How then do we overcome this? I believe that this is best supported by process. Disciplined attention to detail and sound processes to guide our implementation allow us to review, realign and re-engage. Whatever your process, framework or guidelines are they need to be clearly understood by all members of the team. These are the guiding principles that will assist with fidelity of implementation. How many times have you heard a sportsperson say that when the chips were down they knew that if they stuck to their processes they could overcome any obstacle. It’s the same when we implement, if we have sound, well thought out processes to guide us then there is less of a chance that we miss the mark on implementation. Alignment of processes across disciplines allows our whole context to understand that this is the expectation for how way we work around here.
Implementation is best supported when being implemented in the right conditions. An environment that supports ongoing improvement, trust, collaboration and accountability supports consistency of implementation. I’ve written previously on the power of culture. Understanding our purpose, creating the customs, beliefs, values and attitudes that focus on continuous improvement should be the foundation. Feedback loops and sound processes that support the culture you are establishing are critically important. Never underestimate the power of an underlying culture that may be resistant to change. Find the early adopters cultivate their skills, support their implementation and celebrate their success. Establishing the right culture is fundamental to fidelity of implementation.
Effective and consistent implementation is complex and multi-directional being impacted from a range of influences. The gap between theory and practice will never be closed through careful planning alone. It’s the on the ground, shoulder to shoulder support and collaborative practice that will make the difference. To change practice we must change behaviour and to do so we must change mindsets, change skill sets and provide processes that support implementation. This is complex work that requires disciplined attention over an extended period of time. When thinking about how you implement initiatives consider whether your implementation has changed practices, routines and structures in a concrete way on the ground and how you know? What concrete evidence do you have that it has had any impact and that it is being implemented consistently? These a key questions that will assist you with reviewing the way you implement within your context. Remember when the rubber hits the road it’s the fidelity of the implementation that makes the difference.
The Power of Face to Face
The world has changed. We’ve gone through an enormous shift in how we communicate. We’ve undoubtedly become accustomed to and comfortable with communicating via text messaging, social media and emails. This has been a mainstay for many years now. What has shifted, due to circumstance, is the rise and competency of using technology across platforms to communicate. We’ve actually become very good at it. What it’s highlighted though is the fundamental need and significant benefits of face-to-face interaction.
Humans are social animals. This has never been more evident than now. Whilst many enjoyed isolation and the chance to maybe slow down elements of their world, this only lasted for so long. Ultimately there came a yearning for contact with others. The virtual world has its place and is here to stay but nothing compares to a real community, spending physical time with people in a place with shared purpose, collaboration and support. The feeling of being in the physical presence of others can never be replicated online.
I’ve written previously about how we must learn from the last few months and identify how we can keep the best of the technological revolution. This period has certainly given us time to master the tools at our disposal. Over the last few months we have started to understand how powerful technology can be in allowing us to collaborate virtually. We’ve Zoomed, Teamed, Skyped, shared on Google Drive, connected in hangouts, brainstormed on Trello. There has been a widespread embracement of technology as an effective and efficient tool. Those who may not normally contribute to meetings have found their voice and stepped out of the shadows, they’ve found a way to overcome whatever it was that may have held them back in the physical meeting world. We’ve found more efficiency in splitting into virtual breakout rooms with counters timing us and bringing us back to share our contributions. I’ve noticed in the virtual world that the more people can actually see each other the greater the virtual collaboration. The ability to see the person you are connecting with is so powerful. The visual provides connection. The one common denominator across all platforms has been has been the presence of people. Regardless of the tools there is no collaboration without people and without relationships.
There has certainly been a change to the way we work. Many of our professional interactions have now transitioned online. In our online professional world we don’t have to carve out travel time, we have the flexibility to move from meeting to meeting instantaneously and then exit straight into another body of work. There is no doubt that this is more time efficient and has the potential to increase our productivity. At times, I have enjoyed working without the distractions of a physical office, the ability to concentrate and maximise the cognitive load without noise has had its upside. At times though the isolation has left me reaching out feeling professionally isolated from a collaborative space. The ability to walk past a colleague and have the incidental conversation, the opportunity to bounce ideas around whilst waiting for a coffee, or standing by the photocopier, to walk into a colleagues office and be able to brainstorm or problem solve and then reach out again when that next thought comes to mind are parts of the physical office space that have the potential to enhance our creativity. When new ideas start to emerge you can actually feel the energy in a room, the enthusiasm increases, the vision builds and the motivation to act becomes palpable. These elements combine to make the physical office space an effective working environment that is potentially lacking in the virtual world.
I acknowledge that professionally, the use of technology has brought people together by allowing us to easily connect with colleagues through the click of a button. We are not completely isolated. The opportunity to easily connect across geographical boundaries has been extremely beneficial. What I miss from the physical meeting space though is the ability to read the room and get a feeling for the conversation or the mood of participants. We know that research suggests that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In the online environment it’s difficult to identify the micro elements of body language, a shift in energy, the non-verbals that allow you to adjust your delivery are components lost in our online world. It’s difficult to tell if you are capturing the audience, if you are able to maintain their attention, the temptation for participants to multi task can be overpowering regardless of how good your message is. The research suggests that 65% of your audience are sending emails, checking social media, eating or marking off their task list whilst you are delivering statics. The social nature of our make-up requires you to interact, ask questions and get feedback to keep people engaged and on task. This is a challenge for our online presentations and again demonstrates the power of face to face.
At some level almost every person will be looking to embed the use of technology in their professional world and use the lessons learnt to enhance what they do. Technology used correctly has the power to enhance relationships, we must ensure though, that it doesn’t take them over. Having our heads buried in a device can have a negative impact.
Quite often when we have to deliver an important message with a degree of detail we default to using email. It’s quick, it’s effective, it captures all the information and is an efficient method. It is can also be couched in professional language that can appear to be quite impersonal. At times perception plays a part as the recipient tries to ‘read between the lines’ or misinterprets the message, the tone of your voice and your body language reinforces your message and underlines your intent. I challenge you next time you are going to send that email pick up the phone and have a conversation or better still when permitted and if you are able, walk through the building, find them and have the conversation face to face. To tailor your message to the recipient in person is a highly effective strategy. I guarantee it will be more productive, more enjoyable and potentially more empowering for the person receiving the message as they can clarify, question and deepen their understanding.
In our fast paced digital age we need to slow down and take time to interact in person. Successful leadership requires personal interactions. We are in a people-centric profession. The personal interactions that build a sense of community set the foundation for trust and ultimately this is the bedrock of relationships. As we all know the 3Rs in education are so important. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Technology has its place but it will never replace human connection.
The New Normal
One of the most difficult things in life is trying to restart once momentum is lost. Our current circumstances will end and pave the way for a new normal. In returning to the new normal we have an opportunity to be actively involved in carefully constructing what it could look like. There is always some catalyst for change that leads us to develop new habits and build a new mindset. We’ve had the most significant catalyst in living memory which required us to transform our education delivery overnight. For years the keen, the interested and the technologically savvy have sung the praises of using technology as an effective integrated tool in teaching and learning. Many of us have attended professional learning and come away with a quick energy boost or tinkered on the edges of a particular platform or software package to give something a go……. for a while. Far too often though we find ourselves back in the grind with little time to really engage and see how we can effectively implement technology into our daily practice.
Today, those we serve are immersed in technology in nearly all aspects of their lives. Under the current climate this has proven to be even more so. This digital revolution we have witnessed in education has provided a new way of delivering content and engaging with our students and staff. We now have the capacity to learn at any time, be it online, offline, in classrooms or in our homes. How can we harness this opportunity that has been created? It has often been said that out of adversity comes innovation. I believe we have a once in a generation opportunity to develop a technological response that could enhance the powerful work we do.
As we move back into a more traditional approach of learning it is time to think about how we might utilise the current momentum to strategically adopt our enhanced modes of education delivery. I’m not suggesting we let technology take over. There is no substitute for face to face teaching, I believe the last few weeks have highlighted the power of human interaction and connection in our work. The power of face to face teaching can never be understated. However we are perfectly placed to explore how technology can assist with personalised learning as a supportive tool rather than a bell and whistle to generate enthusiasm. We have an opportunity to continue to provide the high-quality learning options we have been delivering as an additional support to our work. We must capitalise on this technological revolution and support the ongoing collaboration of our teams to consistently engage with useful technology platforms that complement face to face teaching and learning.
Think of the potential now to capture point in time information and readjust our learning to meet the exact needs of students by using technology consistently in assessment practices. We have a new problem of practice to solve – “How do we consistently use technology across systems to enhance our assessment practices”. At present the most consistent use of technology in assessment by big systems it to mark large banks of learning to determine what a student has retained over a period of time. We are now in a position to think about how we can use it in an ongoing manner, to locate a student’s current knowledge, understanding and skills to support planning for learning and teaching. I don’t see it as a way to replace the teacher but rather a highly agile and adaptive tool that can enhance and support the implementation of curriculum. Technology provides an easy and efficient way of giving feedback to students, and managing marking and assessment. Having information available all in the one place enables us to collaborate more easily with colleagues and share student progress at any time.
Almost overnight we created online learning spaces for our students and staff, spaces that we never imagined were possible. The level of innovation and growth in the confidence of utilising technology tools for teaching and learning from our teachers has been absolutely staggering. I’ve heard teachers talking about the quality of the work some students have been able to produce in this new learning environment free from possible distractions. There has also been an opportunity for some incredibly specific feedback delivered in the most innovative of ways. I witnessed teaching staff who have thrived in this environment with a new found freedom to create. We have unearthed a new generation of educational experts who have been waiting for the right moment to showcase their talents. How will each school capitalise of this expertise and utilise it going forward. We must empower these technological leaders so they can continue to innovate and create. I’m not implying that we were not creative previously, however you have to admit that the COVID-19 education revolution brought teacher creativity to a whole new level – on mass.
What are the implications now for our learning spaces? We’ve proven that we can learn without 4 walls, a desk and all of us in the one space. Do we continue to use a mix of online and face to face? Have we created an expectation from our students that we bring this level of creativity and flexibility to the physical space we now occupy? As digital natives our students will possibly welcome these innovations and actively seek them as we return to the new normal. Studies have shown that after a significant event people exit with a boost of energy and increased enthusiasm. They ride the wave of inspiration and goodwill. Slowly though people return back to their normal routine. Our challenge is to strike now to keep what worked and integrate it into our practice before we revert back.
We know that there is some complexity when it comes to access of technology, not everyone has been afforded the same opportunity to engage online, however this too will pass in time. Technology is not going away and if anything access to technology will only increase not fade. Intelligent systems will be looking to see how they increase accessibility as a result of this pandemic. How can we reduce disadvantage to ensure equity of access? I believe we will start to re-evaluate how we distribute technological resources to ensure equity of access for all. This will be a significant challenge, but if we have proven anything through this pandemic we have proved that we are up to meeting challenges.
We know that for many this new online world has opened up new avenues for keeping parents much more engaged with how their children are progressing and provided new methods of communication. We have the potential for a wider reach into the community but must use this intelligently to establish clear protocols and boundaries to use it in its most effective form.
We’ve been able to come up with solutions that have been truly innovative and so creative in their delivery. If we are to keep the momentum going we must support rather than manage, we must be fearless, determined and optimistic to create this new normal and not revert back. We are perfectly positioned to develop system wide strategic plans for implementing and integrating technology. It’s critical we build on the momentum and invest in professional learning to incorporate technology that enhances the learning process and build on the current momentum. The new normal is exciting. It’s time to build on our successes and accelerate momentum toward our new normal to explore what might be possible.
Uncertainty is a great catalyst for learning. When we are faced with uncertainty a signal is sent to the brain that something is not right, that something is different. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a range of emotions that accompany uncertainty. In our current climate uncertainty is possibly the only element that is certain. Our current global challenge has provided the most uncertain period in living memory and has left many people in an unfamiliar environment where they have been forced outside their comfort zones. Many of us have found ourselves operating in the discomfort zone. This is a place where, whilst uncomfortable, we are open to new learning and if we act on it, accept it and wrestle with the challenge we have a significant opportunity to expand what may be possible.
The discomfort zone is a place that challenges how people view a system, a behaviour, a belief, an attitude or a plan. Being in the discomfort zone interrupts how we would normally deal with or behave towards a certain situation or in a particular circumstance. It poses enough challenge that it forces you stop and pause. In some cases it seems insurmountable which can lead to us finding a work around or in some instances ignoring it altogether and refusing to engage. Those that choose this path are closed to learning at this stage and will find it difficult to engage with the predicament. Currently, there is no ignoring the discomfort, it’s worldwide and how we choose to sit with discomfort may be a defining moment.
In many circumstances skilled leaders have used the discomfort zone as part of the development process for those they lead. Through targeted conversations they draw people to realisations, shifts in perception and possibly self-awareness of how values, attitudes and beliefs impact on behaviour. By having these conversations at the right time with the right person you may be able to help create a new awareness and see growth and change by developing an agreed course of action. For this to be most successful the person has to be open to change, feel safe and be ready for it. However given our current climate change is here whether we are ready or not forcing us deep into the discomfort zone.
While it may not feel like it at the moment, this period of discomfort will go a long way in building your leadership skill set. No one likes to feel uncomfortable especially when others are looking to you for guidance and answers. For many of us when we get into an uncomfortable situation in professional settings we start to second guess our ability. We have doubts, we question our skill set, we make comparisons with others ability to cope in this setting. A flood of questions wash over us, are we intelligent enough? Do we have enough knowledge in this area? What is someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t have a solution? This leads us down the next path where we start to think of reasons why we shouldn’t take on the challenge. The fear of making a mistake in front of our peers or those we lead can be crippling. This negative self-talk, this skewed perception, this sometimes visceral emotional response is a result of being in the discomfort zone. As leaders we like a plan, some certainty, there is comfort in knowing we have control over the direction. It can be extremely challenging to lead in uncertain times, when you don’t have all the answers. But we need perspective, this is not excruciating pain that is never ending. It is for the most part a moment in time, a series of events that are punctuated with briefs moments of discomfort.
Moving into the discomfort zone has become increasingly challenging in modern society. We have shifted from a landscape of challenge to one where we have so many supportive structures in place that we limit our interaction with discomfort. We have unintentionally eroded some of our natural resilience to discomfort. On a personal level we surround ourselves with like-minded people, our social media feeds are made up of those that we agree with, our posts are highlights carefully crafted to reflect a particular image, photos are cropped and retaken to ensure we are comfortable with what we are portraying. In some ways the ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality that has gripped our society has impacted on our ability to work in discomfort. These carefully constructed environments limit our potential to grow and explore what is possible.
There are many who try to resist discomfort. In doing so they deny themselves an important opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to break away from underlying assumptions and perspectives that may be limiting their view or potential opportunities. The challenge is to persist and move past that feeling of wanting to return back to what was comfortable. It’s a valuable exercise to listen to your internal dialogue during times of discomfort. What thoughts are you having? Are you looking for ways out? Are you using language that escalates your feelings of discomfort? Do you have a physical reaction? Does your pulse race? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? How do you manage this? Making yourself aware and drawing your attention to your reaction is the first step in overcoming it. Remember emotions are responses to stimuli and are no reason not to take on a challenge.
Once your mind settles into the discomfort of a challenge a change happens. As the work starts to unfold it actually becomes increasingly comfortable and possibly exciting as you lean into the challenge and explore what is possible. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be the most important skill we take out of this pandemic. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but think of the incredible work you and your teams have been able to achieve whilst operating in the most uncertain of environments. Discomfort forces us to view our circumstances from a completely different perspective and stretches us to imagine what might be possible. If we learn no other lesson maybe we could inject some unpredictability into our leadership challenges to normalise the feeling of discomfort. By doing this we can ride the wave and understand that it will end.
What is it that you will take away from this period that will become the new normal for you? What will you let go of that you have done without? What will you continue to use, do or act on? How will you manage another period of uncertainty when it comes, because it will come, maybe not of this magnitude but you will face uncertain situations in the future. We are now deep into this challenge. It would be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how you have responded. Did you lean in or did you try to swerve?
It’s Time to Step Up
In times of uncertainty great leaders step forward. They know that in periods of complexity, in times of adversity they must step up and lead. This is when your true leadership skill set will be put to the test. Your reputation is what others think of you, your character is what you truly are, and now more than ever is a test of your character. Our current situation will test the depth and breadth of our leadership capabilities like never before and I believe we are ready.
In times of uncertainly it can be easy to shift into management mode. Management usually occurs when we are able to work logically and methodically through a routine, process or system. Now is the time to lead, not just manage. We need to step into the complexity and provide guidance to those around us on how to deal with uncertainty.
Complexity is a term used across a wide range of areas. We don’t always think about the same thing when we talk about complexity. In the normal use of the term we might say I have to solve a complex problem, but what we actually mean is that it’s complicated. There is actually a way to solve a complicated problem using the current skill set and processes that we have or have access to. Complexity is a much more dynamic concept that involves reacting to situations as they unfold. Complex situations are dynamic, contextual and ever evolving. Leading in complex times is really another way of saying we are leading through uncertainty.
In times of complexity our leadership decisions can be more important and potentially have more consequence for those we lead than under normal conditions. Those we lead are looking to us for reassurance, guidance and support. Knowing your people and understanding how they will react to uncertainty, to new learning and how they can draw on system and network supports will be crucial. We cannot control the external influences on those we lead, but we can anticipate how our people may react and how we can best support. Using our knowledge of our people, our leadership intuition and our understanding of past behaviours will be key in this area. As a leader you know your context, you know your key players, you know how to leverage off their expertise and how to mobilise your teams. Building the capacity of those you lead to cope with new limitations and manage through new transitions will be a vital element of your leadership.
As an adaptive leader leading through uncertainty, it is imperative that you try to see the overall picture of the current state. You need to be able to pull back from the immediate response and gain a high level perspective, we often talk about getting on the balcony. Now is the perfect time to get a balcony view and see how all work streams are travelling. This allows you to get a clearer understanding of the current operation so you can enhance successful processes and redirect those that may be missing the mark. It is easy to get caught up in the momentum and jump into decision making and hands on action. In times of complexity it is often a long game therefore we must build capacity that will assist in sustaining momentum. Once we establish our current state and have our big picture we shouldn’t be micro managing but rather relying on those we lead to do their jobs well. Work closely with those you trust, allow them to make decisions, support and guide them where necessary by building their capacity and confidence. In doing so you will assist in maintaining momentum for the long game.
Currently we have so many elements interacting continuously there is no way we can rely on a simple cause and effect relationship. It is important to continually map the present to identify what is happening now and see what we can do within current parameters. To do this we need to understand what each element is, we can’t make assumptions. We must draw on our flexibility and agile nature to pause, reflect and realign. It is critical that we monitor how our circumstances evolve and reassess. It’s difficult to define a future state under current circumstances but as an adaptive leader you are in the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. You will need to draw deep on your skill set in outlining a compelling vision, building enthusiasm and inspiring action to lead through.
As an adaptive leader you must ensure that the people you lead become part of the solution by changing behaviours and developing new skills. In unprecedented times there needs to be some shift in our thinking. Adaptive leadership therefore is about facilitating change that builds on the current foundations to unleash capacity. We have been presented with an opportunity. An opportunity to really innovate and create a game changer. What I have witnessed is a culture of collaboration where those we lead are united in a common goal. We are facing an exercise in creative thinking where we are focused on thinking about the previously unthinkable. The momentum that has been generated is creating a culture and set of core values that is binding us together. This brings with it a sense of confidence that we will work our way through the difficult period, whilst not understating the enormity of the task, we have the skills, the capability and the expertise in our teams to make a significant and positive impact.
As a leader in times of uncertainty it’s important to be visible, present and available. Those we lead need to see you working alongside them, actively listening to them and being available to assist them when needed. Making yourself available to connect with those you lead, being empathetic, understanding and accessible is critical in times of uncertainty. Your steady presence will be invaluable. Being always present can present itself with challenges especially in times of increasing pressure, with rapidly changing circumstances that require quick and decisive decisions. In these situations leaders must maintain transparency, be very clear that they are acting on current information and that this may be subject to change. You must discipline yourself to think only in terms of solutions. Encouraging your team to be solutions focused can create and sustain a sense of community that is more important than ever.
As leaders it is critical that you are the calming influence despite how you may be feeling internally. To do this there are some key techniques that I have found useful:
Think today – It’s about one day at a time, what is in front of me at this moment in this time. Whilst we must maintain a long term strategy, sometimes the enormity of the task requires us to focus on one issue at a time. Work through them, be methodical, you’ve done it before.
Acceptance – We need to accept that complexity is difficult. As a leader you need to make peace with uncertainty and understand that nothing remains static, we are constantly evolving. Bringing this understanding to those you lead can be a significant mindset shift. This will allow you to deal with the unexpected although you may not know what it is, you know that it could present itself at any time.
Reflection – Building in time to reflect on decisions as more information comes to hand and regularly debriefing with those we lead is critical in building trust. Taking time to reflect personally on how you are travelling is also vitally important. No leader can do it alone, reach out to your support network.
Work Together– Suspend judgement, listen to ideas, be open to new ways of working and thinking. It’s OK to disagree but now more than ever we need to come together with a united voice. Will we always get it right, possibly not, but publicly criticising and casting blame serves no purpose. Working together on a solution is the only way forward.
There is no doubt that this is a time that we will look back on and learn from. As leaders we must understand that those we are leading are observing us and will often look to emulate our behaviour. We must ensure that we deliver a leadership model that they’ll actively choose to follow. We must lead by example. Set the standard that you want to see in your team. Look after them, nurture them and lead through this like never before.
There are times when we feel like our emotions are beyond our control. When we are under pressure, when we are engaged in an uncomfortable situation or conversation and internally we can feel our emotions rising. You can physically feel the change, it might be butterflies in the stomach, it could also be the red mist rising. There are other times when our emotions come on without warning, but it is how we manage this that is the mark of real leadership. Sometimes these emotions pass very quickly, at other times they can last longer, that feeling of frustration at a situation that should resolve so easily lingering on and triggering your emotions at the very thought of it. In reality, you have the ability to learn how to change your mood and regulate your emotional state which ultimately will enable you to choose which version of you shows up in any situation.
Whilst it is undeniable that there are many aspects to leadership, the most important element involves your interactions with people. The best leaders are able to build positive sustainable relationships that develop a culture of trust, respect and collaboration. They are able to fuel a positive climate in which those they serve feel supported, encouraged and emotionally safe. With work demands increasing, higher levels of accountability and a rapidly changing landscape, leaders who are able to manage their own emotions and master ‘version control’ as they interact with others are better equipped to deal with the pressure of leadership.
Most leaders are astute at paying attention to the emotional reactions of others. We watch their body language, we listen to their tone, we look for facial expressions and try to identify cues that give us insight as to how they are feeling about the situation they are in. What we often overlook though is the signals that we are giving and the way our emotional reactions are feeding into the interaction. There are occasions where there is an unintended negative spill from our previous environment that feeds into our present environment. In version control however you are able to strategically be prepared as you transition from one environment to the next.
One of the greatest challenges we all encounter in leadership positions is managing our own internal emotional state, especially in difficult situations. Our reactions, behaviours and decisions during this time set the platform for those we lead and create the climate we are trying to promote. Being able to manage your emotional state and determine what version of you is present at any given time even in the most challenging of situations is clearly something that is an incredibly powerful leadership skill. Like all skills though you need to practice, you need to understand how to use it and you need to recognise when you need to work harder at developing it.
It has often been said that you can’t control the way people feel, but you can control how you react to them. There are times in our day when we are interacting with people and it can be difficult to know which version you are interacting with. The colleague who walks past you without acknowledgement may be in the version of father with a sick child at home or the version of finance broker with a late mortgage payment who at that point in time does not feel like engaging with anyone. The colleague who snaps back at a seemingly reasonable request may have had an argument with their spouse, a sick pet and a relative in hospital. As a leader we need to be aware that not everyone has version control and whilst we don’t tolerate unacceptable behaviour we take time to understand it without passing judgment. In these circumstances, having a firm grasp on your version of you is crucial.
What we need to understand is that at certain points we can have a huge impact on those we lead and we need to ensure that we don’t miss the opportunity because we have not presented with the right version of ourselves. I’ve been interested in the work of Dr Adam Fraser who talks about the third space, the space when we transition from one environment to another. This is the time we have to check what version of ourselves will be entering the next interaction and how we can manage our emotional state to ensure it is the right version at the right time. The way we think about a situation can have an extremely powerful effect on your emotions which in turn guides your behaviours and decision making. As you would know it can be much harder to shift from below the line states of mind to above the line states of mind so being able to recognise and act is vitally important for those in leadership positions.
So how do you do it, how do you ensure version control is in place.
I think it is important to take a small amount of time just to centre yourself before you transition from one point to another. This does not have to be an exhaustive exercise, it could be as little as taking a few deep breaths as you leave one encounter to another. Doing this allows you to pause momentarily and check your state before you give yourself a chance to act or react.
Change the Image
Sometimes we have a negative image of how an interaction may play out which will impact on our thoughts and feelings that we carry into the interaction. We need to try to look from different perspectives to shift the image we are visualising.
Moving from one space to another provides you an opportunity to let go of your current state and provides a physical reminder to shift into the version you need. If you are not leaving the environment just standing up as a transition can be enough. Using this as a signal that you are transitioning and need to centre again can be all that is needed.
Reframe Self Talk
Change the internal dialogue and shift the language you use. In our transitions between one interaction to another we often have an internal conversation about what just happened or what might happen. The language we use will determine how we show up in the next interaction. Focussing on the positive rather than looking for what did not go well can have an enormous impact. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows but beating yourself up will not give you a different outcome to what has already occurred and will certainly limit your ability to show up in the right version.
Try paying attention to your feelings in different settings and when you’re with different individuals and groups. Monitoring your emotional state with different groups in different contexts allows you to develop crucial background information about what version you need to bring for the context you are entering.
Recognising how you are feeling and understanding your own behavioural styles are key to regulating your emotional state. If you are a conflict avoider recognising how conflict makes you feel prior to entering and managing it allows you to be more effective. If you become frustrated easily recognising your physical and emotional signals of frustration will allow you to regroup or implement a strategy that supports you to manage your frustration.
Focussing on version control and identifying how your thinking patterns can influence your interactions with others will allow you to foster the power of relationships. The ability to select the right version is a skill that will give you enormous emotional freedom and has the potential to have a significant impact on your leadership and the culture you establish. It does not mean that you will not have negative emotions or times when you question the purpose but it means that you are aware and can choose how you respond. I am also not suggesting that we have to regulate every emotion, there are many times when the emotional state you present in are appropriate for the context. Version control is not about suppressing your emotions, it’s about recognising them and understanding that you have control over them not they over you.
Managing your emotional state can be difficult at times but it is a skill that is well worth developing. Having the ability to reset and be focussed in every interaction allows you to be present and connect with those you are interacting with. Remember your version can be contagious, how you show up can have a significant impact on others. Being able to control the version of yourself in your interactions places you in a position of strength to build relationships and create the emotional safety that creates the positive trusting climate that allows others to thrive.
Why Would Anyone Be Led By You?
Just recently I was asked this question ‘Why would anyone be led you?’ It’s a pretty big question and one that I found difficult to answer. The natural reaction was a well-considered “I’m not sure”. There is certain degree of humility required to answer it properly. It definitely provides a significant pause point for reflection. I started by thinking about the most influential leaders that I have worked with and others that I know of or have read about. I considered the leadership traits that they displayed and tried to compare how I lead with how they have led me or lead their teams. It’s an interesting point of comparison. What was it about their style that had people follow them and, in some cases, actively choose to enlist support for them? They certainly displayed a range of highly developed leadership attributes that they were able to draw upon depending on the setting/context they found themselves in. As I started to cross reference the skills and try to identify if I shared similar attributes, I came to a conclusion. People follow you because you are you. Whilst I may collect elements from each leader, ultimately it is how I choose to implement the various skills that make up my leadership. I can’t try to be like another leader, I need to be me.
It’s not just a compelling vision or an ability to inspire that will see people willingly be led by you. Vision and inspiration help to get a journey started but they only last for so long. When the day to day work begins and the routine sets in it’s your leadership that helps keep the momentum. There is a wide range of leadership characteristics that form part of any successful leaders’ armoury. Courage, honesty, integrity, humility, instinct, empathy are all key qualities and not every leader has access to them all. The one quality that every leader does have access to though is themselves. Why would anyone be led by you? Because you are you. Being authentically you and not trying to be anyone else is a significant leadership lesson. I’m not suggesting we are all perfectly made, we all have flaws, but they make up you. The is no definitive list of leadership attributes because as the context shifts and relationships change successful leaders must adapt to the circumstances and call upon the skills needed at that time in that context. When circumstances change and they will, trying to lead based on someone else’s style can be difficult to navigate and leave you feeling like a fraud. If you are always trying to be copy of somebody else then your talents and gifts never get an opportunity to shine.
It continues to surprise me how many leaders try to be someone who they are not. It takes a great deal of energy to be someone you are not and those that we lead get a sense that there is an incongruence between your words and actions. Being ourselves and showing that we have areas for development sends a very strong message, that we accept growth, that we can’t do it all alone and that we will always strive to improve because we can. Being authentic in your leadership by knowing who you are, what your strengths are and your areas for development will do far more to enlist support than striving to be someone you are not. Authentic leaders show a self-awareness that allows them to display their vulnerabilities without losing influence. These leaders have a sharp sense of timing. There are times for strength in leadership, when everyone is looking to you for guidance and there are times to share vulnerability. Authentic leaders are astute at taking the temperature of the environment and picking the right time to share. It’s not a case that they are trying to manipulate an environment but more an emotional intelligence that allows them to determine that this is what is needed at that point in time. Sharing one of your less glorious moments can certainly take the heat out of a room and lighten the mood, whereas a well-crafted narrative about a success can rally support and inspire action.
Authentic leaders hold to their principles. Principles are different from values and beliefs. Your values and beliefs can change over time as you become exposed to a range of experiences. Your principles however are fundamentally you. These are the things that you will not compromise on. Authentic leaders stick firm to their principles, and this shows through in their leadership behaviour and decision making. I’m not suggesting that authentic leaders display a stubbornness that does not allow for compromise. It’s more a case of their moral compass being strong in particular areas and this will always drive their decision making and leadership behaviours. These leaders are often described as being genuine. They are honest and don’t have hidden agendas which leave people guessing about their intent. They may not be open books and are certainly gifted strategists knowing when to share and when to keep information close, but their purpose is always aligned to their principles and is perfectly understood by those they lead. There is a consistency about their leadership that provides a degree of certainty and dependability. You know in times of complexity these leaders will roll up the sleeves and get to work to ensure that those they lead have the confidence to get the job done. There is a great deal of trust that develops when our leaders provide certainty amidst the chaos. The calming influence of a leader who has both hands on the wheel as they navigate the obstacles can never be understated.
The one significant challenge that authentic leaders face is growth. Being authentic can mean sometimes the default position is to rely on the skills and talents that have been successful for you in the past. The difficulty here is that what has gotten you to your current level may not be what is required to get you to the next. It’s been described as being caught in your stylistic comfort zone. Expectations change as responsibility increases which can leave you feeling like you are not being authentically you as you are challenged to move outside your comfort zone and potentially re-invent your leadership style. This is where a strong sense of self awareness is needed to identify what it is that you need to do next to continue to develop your leadership capacity. Successful leaders have the self-discipline that is needed to test themselves, to move outside their comfort zone and take on new challenges that will expose them to new learning. The attitude of ‘if you wait until you are ready, you’ll never be ready’ is a driving force here. At times being able to move toward a goal and keep moving forward despite setbacks displays more about your character and authenticity than the actual achievement.
The paradox of authenticity and leadership growth is a natural part of the leadership pathway. I guarantee that you are not the same leader now that you were 5 years ago. We must learn from other leaders. It would be foolish not to examine different styles, but it is your responsibility to take the various elements of leadership and make them your own. You can then choose to implement them in your way, in your context with your people. As you grow and adapt your style you are making it your own which brings authenticity. Herminia Ibarra, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, describes this as being playful with your leadership development. Just like a child would explore and experiment during play, leaders too can extend themselves by moving outside their comfort zones bringing new dimensions to their leadership. Trying on different styles and seeing if they fit your purpose and work for you is all part of the journey. In the end being authentic in your leadership is about being you. Yes, we need to develop, yes, we need to grow but when you look in the mirror you will know the truth. It’s not the title, the position or the power that makes a great leader, it’s the ability to add value to the lives of those you lead. Authentic leaders build trusting relationships, they understand it’s about the people they lead. How do you know if your leadership has left a positive impact? How might you identify this? Take some time to reflect on these questions and then maybe you can answer , why would anyone be led by you?
Culture is King
Culture and strategy are two of the most powerful tools that a leader has available to them. They shape the lived experience of every member of a school community. Culture is like your school’s personality, it can be welcoming, supportive and encouraging, it can also be the very opposite. The culture of your school is evident as soon as you enter the front office, it’s there when you walk through the playground, when you go into a classroom or sit in a staffroom. With a sharp focus on meeting a range of performance measures, this critical element of school performance can often be overlooked. It can be a strong multiplier in overall school performance when all members of the school community contribute to a positive school culture.
Unlike a strategy that can be copied and shared across schools contexts, culture is comprised of a wide variety of elements that all need to combine in just the right dosages. Culture is embedded and takes a great deal of effort to shift and get right. It’s a moving target that grows over time in response to how we interact with the varying elements that make it up. It sets the expectation and unifies a school under the one umbrella. A strong successful culture is based on a shared set of beliefs that is supported by structures and strategic decisions that help it flourish. Culture helps guide behaviours and decision making. You often hear “this is the way we do things around here”, that’s your culture outlining the expectations.
In understanding how culture is formed you must recognise that people come into an organisation with certain beliefs and assumptions formed through previous experiences. Recognising these beliefs and assumptions, whether they are true or false is crucial as they form the basis of values and can impact on your culture. Our job is to clearly articulate what it is we stand for. Carefully challenging underlying assumptions to assist in shaping values is critical in developing culture. Our values turn into norms which if guided in a skillful way can develop a shared and acceptable way of behaving. This in turn will become our social norms. The power of social norms can never be understated as people generally conform to the norm. If treating people respectfully and approaching life and learning in a positive manner become our norm, imagine what we can achieve.
With this in mind we need to consider how we induct new people into our schools. How are we socialising them into the setting? What are they seeing as the norms? What are they observing that will shape their beliefs and assumptions? Obvious things like how do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved? How do leaders interact with other staff? How do we interact with students and community? These are all clearly observable interactions and send a very clear message on the way the school is developing an environment which is conducive to teaching and learning.
Whilst there is usually a dominant culture within a school there can be subcultures that can be quite powerful and if not monitored can work against your overarching direction. This is where the skilled leader needs to ensure that they consistently support all members of the school community in building a positive culture. It is not enough to have systems, routines and structures in play. The strategic leader takes the opportunity to respectfully challenge negative subcultures outlining why the environment they are working towards is achieving the vision of the school and draws upon positive examples that are assisting in creating it. In many cases where sub cultures have differing views on how things can be achieved, looking at our moral purpose can assist in finding common ground. It’s difficult to argue when decisions are based on positive outcomes for the students we serve.
One of the most important elements and perhaps the one that either reinforces or pulls apart a school culture is relationships. The basis of any solid relationship is trust. Where there is a strong sense of trust across the school and we know we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. There is a proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement. A school culture that is focused on and celebrates positive strong relationships where people feel valued, respected and supported will generate whole school success across all domains.
As a leader I firmly believe we need to work on getting the culture right. The ideas below may assist you with your work.
Model a mindset – A positive mindset can go a long way to assisting in maintaining and developing a positive school culture. As a leader modelling a ‘can do’ attitude and demonstrating how hurdles are not barriers but opportunities for growth can set a very powerful example.
First impressions – From the time you walk into the front office there is a feeling associated with a school. Make yours a positive one. First impressions are lasting and set the tone for future interactions.
Challenge opposing forces – Establish sound protocols for challenging ideas respectfully. Negativity can be contagious and can gradually seep into a culture. It’s ok to not agree and for things not to always work out. What’s not ok is to constantly complain about them. Use the energy towards refining, reworking and improving. An environment of continuous improvement is much better to work and learn in than one of ‘I told you so’.
Communicate your message – Think of your message as your brand. It needs to be publicised and communicated. In the world of business advertising sells, why, because smart operators get people to believe in their brand. Build your brand with your school community with positive news stories.
Invest heavily in your staff – A strong focus on professional learning that is focused on classroom practice with a balance of support and accountability empowers staff with skills and knowledge but also sets clear expectations. Supporting this to be transferred into the classroom is pivotal in improving student outcomes. When people feel that there is a real investment in their growth, they are more willing to buy into the culture.
Students first – They have to be the top priority in any decision making across the school community. If we are to truly putting students first they will know. They will be able to see, feel and hear that we are placing them at the centre.
Culture over technical skill – It can be far easier to develop technical skills than adjust to a new culture. Our work is relational, technical skill alone will not develop the supportive trust and bonds that underpin a positive school culture. A culture of continuous improvement will allow technical skill to develop in the right environment. As Dylan Wiliam says “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”
There are many elements that make up the culture of a school and every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact. As a leader you need to live your culture every day. It needs to be more than just a poster on a wall or a well worded address at a staff meeting or assembly. As the leader you need to live it, breathe it, model it, inconsistencies in this area create doubt and uncertainty. It’s one thing to say you want a great culture; it’s another task altogether to strategically build and maintain it.
All Things to All People
It’s long been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Whilst our schools can been seen as a small village within a larger community I’m a firm believer that the village is much more representative of the community as a whole.
In today’s society raising children is much more complicated that it has ever been, there are societal expectations, economic pressures, complex family arrangements and the monster that is social media. These influences have created a complicated, multifaceted environment in which to raise well-rounded children. As governments and communities grapple with this increased complexity often seeking quick win solutions, it is increasingly becoming the role of our educational systems to become all things to all people.
Traditionally it has been the responsibility of families and their support networks to set expectations, model values and establish limits that define and shape a young person’s moral compass. Children can became products of their environment where they learn how to behave, how to express opinions, how to interact with those around them respectfully and how to navigate the world safely and productively. I agree that schools certainly have a key role to play in character development. Public education offers our students exposure to the full breadth of our community where they are able to access wide ranging views, beliefs and opinions. This is a strength of our system. Over recent years though, there has been a dramatic shift where schools and teachers are being tasked with the responsibility of tackling an increasingly wide range of social issues.
Whilst education is the great equaliser and assists in rising above poverty, racism, sexism and promotes the establishment of strong moral and ethical codes it is not the miracle solution to solving all societal issues. It appears that with each emerging issue, policy makers with all best intentions and boundless enthusiasm, rely solely on schools to provide education campaigns that address and target the platform of the day. Strong, well-meaning interest groups are crowding the curriculum in the hope that schools can right the wrongs of others. It seems that the default position to almost any problem in society is to teach it in schools. There seems to be a giant leap in the logic. If we cover issues related to road safety, water safety, responsible pet ownership, sun safety, civics, obesity, cyber safety, financial literacy and the list goes on then we will be able to adequately solve some of society’s greatest problems. Whilst these issues are all important they enter an already overcrowded curriculum. Adding to the curriculum may not necessarily be the best way to address such a broad range of social issues. If we continue to use schools as the sole vehicle for addressing social problems then we will always continue to miss the mark.
Schools will always respond to the social, emotional and welfare needs of their students as the role normally performed by families becomes more and more part of the daily school routine. The skill set of the modern day teacher has far outgrown the traditional model as they become counsellors, peace makers, social workers, law enforcers, nurses and careers advisors. Teachers continue to work daily on developing well rounded citizens who will and can contribute to society. But this is not their sole responsibility. It takes a village.
Why is it then that this has become the default? Partly because it is seen as an easy fix. There is an economic argument that says that it is more fiscally responsible to educate than to build infrastructure and support systems to address the cause of the problem. Long term solutions require changes in behaviour. Changes in behaviour come from education. Whilst there is undoubtedly an economic cost for delivering new educational programs it is certainly seen as a more cost effective method. The second reason is that education is the great equaliser. If we deliver relevant curriculum that educates on a particular issue then we are building a foundation of change from the ground up. Sowing the seeds of change and monitoring growth is a well-used strategy. However as educators we know that working on things in isolation is not always the most effective change management solution. We need all elements of the community to wrap around the issues to see real change.
As we look towards our schools of the future we face the challenge of assessing what we want our teachers to teach. If we are to continue to be front line educators of social change then we need to consider how this is done and at what expense? As our education systems increase in size it can be complex to allow the flexibility to address social issues as a whole of system response. Our task is to enable schools to work contextually with local issues in the confines of a large organisation. How do we alleviate system pressure to allow schools to focus on the relevant task at hand? Whilst we can be quick to add to the ever growing list we can at times be slow to reduce it. I have noticed recently a focus on ‘decluttering’. Whilst this at present appears to be more on an administrative basis there is hope that it could move to a broader platform.
The biggest question though is what role will the village play in developing our schools of the future? How will all arms of the community work in partnership to develop the skills needed by our students to address the pressures of modern society? Education systems cannot continue to be all things to all people. As educators we know that it takes a village. It’s time for the village to assume the collective responsibility.
Collaboration is No Accident
Have you ever heard the phrase two heads are better than one. In today’s complex and often challenging leadership space this has never been more true. The power of collaboration really has become the go to approach for today’s successful leaders. Building collaborative teams that problem solve together and share their collective wisdom is creating news ways of working and building a collective ownership that drives an organisation forward.
Effective leaders have always been open to suggestions and feedback on their plans, ideas and vision. Traditionally though this process has been limited and surface level at best. This method breeds suspicion and suspected self-interest around the decision making which are powerful tools that undermine leadership teams. What we are seeing more of now is an open and transparent model of leadership that allows the work behind a decision to be viewed and understood. This is creating environments where, whilst not everyone agrees, decisions are understood on the basis of the information provided. This greater transparency builds trust. When we give greater voice and inclusion to our decision making process we build a collective responsibility where the success is the responsibility of the team not the heroic figure leading the charge. It may not be possible or indeed practicable to have widespread collaboration on every decision this would in all probability grind our organisation to a halt but the big picture decisions that set directions must have high level collaboration.
Collaborative leaders understand the power of collective wisdom when problem solving. I’m not sure that I have ever been the most innovative educator, sure I have the odd idea that is outside the box but generally I’m sitting on the box looking over the edge wondering how these imaginative educators come up with these brilliant ideas. Successful leaders understand that they cannot be all things to all people so they build teams that have a balance of skills and knowledge. With a collective team effort we can expand ideas in so many ways, challenging our thinking to develop a single thought into a well-developed plan. This style of complimentary leadership uses the differences of the team to source solutions. Strong leaders develop norms and protocols that empower individuals within the group to identify when things are blocking a solution and take the group away from its intended purpose. These systems allow issues to be tabled respectfully and solutions identified collectively, building stronger commitment to the overall goal.
As a collaborative leader you have the perfect opportunity to build the skills of your team. Working in collaboration allows you to leverage the strength of the individuals in your team. As a high quality leader you have a responsibility to build the capacity of those you lead. Finding opportunities to coach your team to build individual skill or form complementary partnerships across the team allows others to learn from each other. This not only builds capacity but strengthens the depth of the decision making. Working through to a solution provides the perfect opportunity to access coachable moments where you have work based problems to solve and quarantined time to guide team members through change.
Collaborative leadership whilst not new is becoming an increasingly adopted model. There is a definite shift from the heroic rockstar leader to the strong focused team where there is strength and wisdom in numbers. The old saying the smartest person in the room, is the room itself has never been more true. I have a few suggestions that I believe can assist in building a collaborative approach.
- Know that you are not the font of all wisdom – No single person can have in depth coverage over every aspect. High quality leaders know they don’t know it all and surround themselves with experts. In large organisations there are experts within and external to the site, use this knowledge and skill to give you a broad perspective.
- Share information – Effective decisions are made on balanced judgement, true collaboration cannot occur when one member of the team withholds information.
- Ask for help – Effective leaders recognise when they need help. There is no shame is asking for assistance and utilising the wisdom of another.
- Ask open ended questions – As leaders we need to carefully consider our questions. With the increased tempo of our work it can become easy and convenient to ask questions that we already know the answers to or questions that guide toward a predetermined destination. At times we believe that a quick response will allow us to get on with the job. The effective leader though will ask open ended questions that could provide solutions or paths not thought of.
- Do what you say you’re going to do – When you are truly collaborative you rely on each other to get things done. If you say you’ll do something do it well and on time. The team is only as strong as its weakest link. Don’t be the weak link.
- Be brave but respectful – Successful collaboration requires honesty. If something is not right then call it out and offer a solution. Developing protocols for how this is achieved encourages honesty by providing a safe platform to work from.
- Listen – When we are truly passionate about an idea our ability to listen can be limited. As others try to add their perspective and we begin to advocate for our position, the ability to listen, compromise and act with humility show depth to your leadership.
- Use silence – I’ve often used silence as a strategy. Sometimes having the thought and sitting on it allows you to gain perspective. Sometimes it’s what’s not said that builds the solution.
As we move into a new model of operation I urge you to collaborate widely. The days of silo decision making have long gone. The role of the leader has evolved into that of a connector, someone who can identify hotspots of talent and merge them together to achieve what was not considered possible. Successful collaboration won’t just happen, many have tried only to build a group that works against each other rather than the problem they are trying to solve. Building collective impact takes time, careful planning and strong systems that support the collaborative culture. As all successful team leaders have found, high quality collaboration is no accident.
Why is Failure a Dirty Word?
Why do we have a fear of failure? I guess it’s always been there. It’s natural to be a little apprehensive when trying something new for the first time, but if we let this feeling take over it could lead us down a path where nothing new is tried. Imagine the limitations we place on ourselves if we only attempt things we know we will succeed at.
Strong leaders accept failure. They use it as an opportunity to learn, they actively develop a culture where people are encouraged to push their limits, to step out of their comfort zones and take a chance. High quality leaders will look at setbacks, provide feedback and investigate how things can be improved. They provide encouragement and a supportive environment. They know that sometimes we learn best by seeing what doesn’t work. They understand that sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Some might say, if you haven’t failed you haven’t tried anything new. I believe it’s Ok to fail, as long as it is for the right reasons. Failure happens, it’s part of life, not learning from it and repeating the same process is the real mistake.
If we don’t allow people to try new things and fail occasionally we develop an unhealthy almost stifling culture, where fear of failure impedes progress. When we let our fear of failure stop us we are potentially missing out on some of our greatest learning opportunities. In some ways we may even get more out of our failures than we do from our successes. History is littered with people who have failed; Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Imagine if Edison stopped after his first attempt. What if Edison didn’t have the resilience to carry on? Failure teaches resilience. I’m sure you have found that some people have this in short supply. Resilience can be taught; however, it requires you to pick yourself up, look at where things went wrong and devise a plan for the next time you encounter this situation. It also requires the right environment where mistakes are certainly not encouraged, but are accepted and used as teaching tools for further development.
Action research seems to be a big push at the moment. What is action research? It’s the process of testing a theory, collating some evidence and refining the practice to make improvements. In essence it’s the process of analysing actions so you can do better next time. It actively encourages you to look at your failures and learn from them. Action research often involves learning communities who work together to look at practices that are not as successful as hoped. This learning community is often embracing failure as a way of developing innovation and enhancing practice. A school that encourages action research is therefore developing a culture that supports its members taking calculated risks and expanding their learning. In doing so it is taking action to strengthen and further enhance its ability to respond to the specific needs of the community it serves.
I see learning from failure as one key difference between the successful and the unsuccessful. The successful keep going. They keep refining, refocusing and refusing to give up. They do not accept defeat and actively seek a new solution; they certainly don’t pass blame and point the finger. They take calculated risks, knowing why they try something new. They look at a potential hurdle, analyse current practice and actively work through a process to find a solution. Success is built on hard work, refinement and an unrelenting pursuit of achieving your goal.
In many ways we actually need failure. If we constantly succeed at everything we do we develop a false economy. Always coming out on top may cause us to never actually take time to analyse and find ways to enhance what we do. It can lead to a, if it works don’t mess with it attitude. Sometimes failure is the motivation we need to make real change. It should promote strong reflection and encourage commitment to ensure that the same mistake is not made again.
The fear of failure can be a really difficult obstacle to overcome, but the reality is that at some point it will happen to all of us. It’s how you deal with it and the environment that you fail in that is key. You can learn a great deal about a school by how they respond to failure. What strategies do they put in place to support the next effort? How do they encourage continued innovation? How do they help to build resilience? Consider these questions the next time someone in your school tries something that is not as successful as it was intended to be. I am by no way condoning repeated and ongoing failure. I am however encouraging us to support each other, to take risks and to make informed decisions that enhance the opportunities of the students we serve.
I’m Getting a Coach
This year I’ve decided to get a coach. I’ve spent the summer listening to sport commentators discuss technical aspects of their sports, they’ve highlighted players blind spots, player weaknesses as well as areas of strength. They’ve had the ability to objectively observe and provide insight that if adhered to could improve player performance. As leaders we try to provide this to those around us. We watch, we discuss, we question, we guide all to assist in improving performance, but who coaches us?
As leaders we are committed to cycles of continuous improvement for those we lead, sourcing professional opportunities, constructing systems and routines that encourage and promote professional development. We extend this process to our own learning by actively seeking ways to sharpen our skills. Rarely though do we get solicited constructive feedback. For many leaders, feedback is only provided when things are not tracking as planned. So this year I’ll get a coach, someone who can provide one on one, objective, personalised feedback. Someone who can see different aspects of my leadership and shine a light on them. Someone who can ensure that I am very specific in my personal goals and hold me accountable. I know it might be challenging and at times may make me uncomfortable as I acknowledge that my practice may need to change. In the end though it’s about growth and continuous improvement.
As leaders we are usually very reflective. We take time to think through decisions, to review plans and strategy and adjust as necessary. Sometimes however, it can be difficult to reflect on our own performance as our underlying assumptions cloud our judgment. We observe, we assume and sometimes we look for the self-fulfilling prophecy to reaffirm. It’s not easy getting a gauge on how others see you and how this might be impacting on your ability to work with your team. This space is known as our professional blind spot and can leave you exposed if not identified.
When things are going well reflection can become even more difficult. At these times we firmly believe that our decisions are well thought out as our own data sources fall prey to confirmation bias. This is where your coach can provide an objective third party view with no stake in the decision. They will be able to dissect your data sources, operational approach and professional behaviour traits and challenge you on their validity. Quite simply your coach is the person who provides an objective view point based on unbiased evidence. Their ability to walk you through a process that provides clarity, grounds you and generates alternative viewpoints will be invaluable. This then places any required leadership change as your responsibility, allowing you to identify what it is you need to learn and what it is that you may need to change to achieve a more successful outcome.
In my early leadership days I thought of a coach as someone who observed using a tick and flick method to make sure I was not underperforming, that I was working at a satisfactory level. What I’ve grown to understand is that a coach is much more than evaluation and supervision. A quality coach can identify skill levels and work to provide a very individualised level of support. A coach has the ability to provide real-time feedback that can lead to behavioural changes being implemented immediately.
In a rapidly changing landscape with increased scrutiny on performance it has never been more crucial to have a sounding board who can provide you with constructive feedback. Athletes have long understood this, they realise that an effective coach can analyse their skills, knowledge and performance and provide feedback, that if adhered to can take their game to a level they would not have achieved through personal reflection alone. In times of challenge you can be the focus of heavy scrutiny and criticism, when there is an unpopular decision to be made you can bet that you’ll receive feedback. As we know this unfortunately comes with the leadership territory. What I am after though is feedback on my day-to-day performance to help me improve. Why? Because I can. My view is that an effective coach will equip me with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities I need to fully develop. Vince Lombardi, a former American football coach once asked the question how many self-help programs will it take until you improve? His answer, just one, it’s the one you commit to. In our day to day business we can get distracted and become absorbed in the tasks at hand losing sight of our own personal goals. A coach will assist in keeping you on track in your continuous improvement journey.
As we transition into a new year, some of us in new roles, we can be faced with new learning experiences and new role expectations. There can be increased demands which can stretch us, challenge us and leave us feeling vulnerable. It’s the perfect time for a coach. We invest heavily in the professional learning of our teams, building their knowledge base and technical expertise, ensuring that those we lead have the tools required to perform. As a leader you are in an influential position to make an impact at a broad level. For this if no other reason you need to ensure that you are at the top of your game. Your coach will keep you on track moving towards your goals.
This year I’d encourage you to think a little selfishly and find yourself a coach. Do your homework. It has to be the right fit, there must be a connection and sense of trust for it to work. It’s a genuine partnership. This person will hold you accountable and could push you to a level that you didn’t think was possible. Most leaders travel the safe and comfortable self-guided journey of continuous improvement. They seek opportunities that they believe will assist in their growth. For real change to happen, for strong growth, find a coach to challenge you beyond what you think is possible. It may be uncomfortable at times, but I guarantee it will be worth it.
Is Data Taking the Fun Out of Teaching?
I’d like to address the elephant in the classroom. The one that’s standing right in the middle taking up lots of space, crowding the learning environment. Data. Is it taking the fun out of teaching? I guess the answer is yes and ……… no. There is no question that systems, governments and schools needs big data to identify trends, predict patterns of behaviour, allocate resources to emerging and identified areas of need and provide high levels insights. Big data has its place but what about the small data? it can be structured and non-structured, it can be scheduled and randomised and is collected in usable sized chunks that are contextually relevant to a specific setting. Is it possible that using small data can be fun.
Many professionals are getting bogged down in the debate over what seems to be a relentless schedule of data collection. What we tend to overlook in the debate, is the purpose. If our data collection is serving no real purpose other than to complete a spreadsheet and rob us of teaching time then I agree, what is the point? On the other hand if we are using it to sharpen our focus, to specifically target our teaching then it is critical. Useful data connects people with timely, meaningful insights into student areas for growth and achievement and when used purposefully can be an extremely powerful tool that actually puts the fun back into teaching.
Whilst I agree that data walls, visible targets and performance measures have assisted in creating a sharp focus on evidence based practices and demonstration of impact, is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far in our pursuit of individualised accountability? Nothing is more important to the success of our students than high quality teaching. I am in the privileged position to be able to view our teaching staff in action across schools in our system. What I have observed are staff who have high expectations, are able to cater for the wide range of needs of their students and use highly effective techniques that both engage and challenge our students. High quality teachers are always striving for student improvement. They are possibly their harshest critics, analysing their lessons, their delivery, levels of student engagement and the impact of their work on students. They are using small data all day, every day as a way of improving practice.
Small data allows us to provide our own insights into the relationships we have with our students, it allows us to develop achievable bite sized chunks that we can celebrate and this is where the joy comes back in. I spent my last years on class as a kindergarten teacher. By the end of the year my students could read, write, work mathematically in combination with a whole range of social, emotional and communication skills. I did that. I gave a gift that they would have for life. No matter how old they are or where they are in the world I started that learning journey. When we are able to see the improvement, see the skill development, know that we have had an impact, that’s the incredibly powerful and rewarding element of teaching. The question is how do we know and what role can data play?
Data talks, data walls, data walks, assessment schedules, moderating, criteria analysis, individualised, tiered, standardised the list goes on and all play their role. What is more powerful though, is a strong focus on teams of teachers using contextually relevant small data as a powerful vehicle to drive student improvement. Time spent imputing data into a spreadsheet could be better spent in teacher teams working together to observe practice and refine our craft. Our system actually supports this process through the Performance Develop Framework. At its core it underpins the notation that every teacher, in every school will improve, not because they have to but because they can. High performing teams use this system developed process to increase levels of performance, to strive towards personalised goals that impact on student outcomes. How do we know if we have improved? Small data. Colleagues observe and provide immediate contextualised feedback specific to the individual, its formative assessment for teacher colleagues.
Spending time in teacher teams using our collective knowledge of our students and curriculum to design learning draws on a range of small data for a very specific purpose. In NSW Public Education a strong focus on collaborative instruction is driving this approach across schools. We have strong evidence based, system supported teaching strategies that provide high level direction for our schools. Our teacher teams have the ability to contextualise best practice to become relevant practice for their context. It’s the small data that allows teacher teams to contextualise and target the specific needs of their students. Learning sequences designed with the selection of appropriate assessment techniques allow us to identify what it is that will move student learning forward. This is supported by the purposeful collection of a range of small data. Without the small data it’s just another unsubstantiated opinion that offers little direction.
It’s not the quantity of the data it’s the purpose and how we use it. The fun comes back into teaching when we view data as an avenue to investigate ways to unlock student potential. When we take time to reflect on where a student is, where we want them to be and how we are going to get them there in small achievable and measurable segments we target our teaching. Working this way we identify what students can already do and what they need to learn next. When we bring this down to a very specific skill level and provide a definite timeframe for evaluation and refinement it has the potential to bring a sense of accomplishment that can be almost addictive. It’s the small data that allows us to really know our students. Understanding the purpose behind our data collection and using it to target our teaching will help us build a better relationship with the elephant in the classroom.
Empathy – Leadership’s Soft Skill
Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.
Leading by Default
What is a default option and why would you use it to lead? The default option is what is left when no active choice has been made between a set of possibilities. Well-designed defaults can be quite powerful in nature as they essentially simplify decision making effectively guiding desirable behaviour. Leading by default may seem like it lacks strategy and is potentially an ineffective route, but what if your default is a culture of high expectations built around collaborative professional learning communities that focus on cycles of continuous improvement. Sounds more appealing doesn’t it? A well designed learning culture across your school lays the platform for an effective default. The question remains then, why would you want a default if you had such an effective learning culture prominent across the school? The answer I believe is that it allows your staff the freedom to experiment, to trial and to explore knowing that there is a high level fall-back position if they are not successful. A default position carefully designed to be the mainstay of your school’s operation is a safety net for successful student outcomes.
The challenge is to establish the default, which can be a complex and time consuming journey. An initial default is continuing the way things have always been, raising the bar can be difficult especially when many schools are doing an exceptional job to begin with. But the very notion of continuous improvement is based on the ideology that we can always get better. I often talk to my staff about what makes a champion. The champion never strives to be number one, they strive to beat number one to continue to do better by refining, refocusing and evaluating their performance. In the words of Dylan Wiliam “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better”. We are fortunate to be in a period of education when we are supported by The Australian Professional Standards that identify the benchmarks for performance. In NSW Public Education we have the support of a system that encourages individual responsibility for self-improvement through performance and development plans. These tools provide a perfect springboard for raising the bar and establishing a high quality default position.
In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outlined the idea of choice architecture. They suggest that we have the ability to design our environments in order to influence behaviour. Just as an architect will design a building to meet a specific purpose, we too can design our default model to meet the specific requirements of our context. The default will be comprised of a variety of components which individually will have a significant impact on the overall operation of a school. As leaders we need to identify these components and understand their role in establishing the default setting we are seeking. Through a combination of high quality professional learning, collegiality, mentoring, coaching and knowing our students the default model can be framed within the context of our individual settings.
In an era where we are swamped by research articles and social media feeds us professional learning opportunities 24/7 we have the ability to source and develop high quality professional learning that can be adapted to our individual contexts. An effective professional learning model to develop a default position must have sound procedures in place that have a single schoolwide focus. This focus needs to be supported by evidence, what is the data telling us, and be classroom based with an emphasis on improving teaching strategies. The model is not about improving the teacher it’s about ensuring that high quality strategies form the basis of practice across the school. Be it instructional rounds, lesson study or PDP observations it has to have time for reflection, feedback and discussion of next steps. It must be based on the premise that teachers have a commitment to improve and an openness to be critiqued by their colleagues. I have found the use of technology has been invaluable in enabling staff to capture lessons, strategies and student responses and reflect on them in collaborative debriefing sessions at the conclusion of the lesson. This timely immediate feedback is extremely powerful in developing the default position acting as a social contagion spreading its influence. Just like athletes reviewing game day footage and identifying strengths and areas for development so to this technology affords our staff the same opportunity.
In business the default option is carefully designed to ensure that there is a benefit to the designer for not choosing another option. The default in most instances is carefully orchestrated to favour the design architect leading to increased profits. As leaders in schools wouldn’t it make sense that we design our default to ensure that it makes students the beneficiaries? Establishing norms, which shape expectations about how we learn together as professionals forms the foundation of the learning culture and can become the default. Social psychology research clearly demonstrates that when faced with any change processes people tend to resist until they feel comfortable. As change happens and it will, as you try to establish teacher buy in to a new strategy having a high quality default position to fall back on will place your students in a win win situation. So whilst leading by default may sound like a lack of strategy becoming the design architect of the new normal certainly has its benefits.
Leading by Instinct
Have you ever had to make a decision and it just didn’t feel right? As leaders we make decisions all day that have a direct impact on those we lead. We aim to get them right and use all evidence at our disposal to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of doing so. Occasionally, we’ll be faced with a decision that has us feeling uneasy and a little voice in our heads starts nagging that something is not right. You know that feeling that makes you go back and check that you’ve turned off the iron or makes you hesitate just that fraction before you cross the road in front of a car. We all have those stories when we ‘just knew’, when we had a ‘gut feeling’. Using our instincts has long been a mechanism used for survival. Our ancestors used instinct to recognise that big prehistoric monsters coming over the horizon were dangerous and needed to be avoided. In the modern world our instincts protect us from the metaphorical monster and if used correctly can assist us to navigate the complex nature of leadership.
There is a theory that trusting your gut instincts may be the result of years of experience playing on your subconscious guiding you away from a path you have been down before. Some call it instinct, some intuition, some relying on their gut. Research out of John Hopkins and Harvard Medical has supported a growing body of evidence linking the connection between the gut and the brain. They have identified that within the walls of our digestive system is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which acts as the brain of the gut. The ENS links directly to the brain via the central nervous system on what is known as the gut-brain axis. This axis allows for two way communication between the brain and the gut sending and receiving impulses, and responding to experiences and emotions. Any time you get a physical reaction when faced with decision the axis is at work. If you get a light feeling in the stomach when excited by an idea it’s a pretty good sign that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. On the other hand if you have a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and there is a sense of apprehension it’s pretty clear that this is a definite no. This system acts like an internal moral compass.
There are many great stories of exceptional leaders who are said to have great instincts; they have the capacity to read situations and react to them with a clarity that defies logic. They are able to pick up on subtle clues, patterns and changes to behaviour and automatically make a judgement without a thorough analysis. Is it a skill they are born with or is it something that can be developed? I believe it is something that can be developed, if you take time to identity the signs. Intuitive leaders subconsciously tune into these signs. The gut- brain axis connects to the limbic system of the brain where all of our habits, emotions, experiences and feelings are stored. This section of the brain is actually where all decision making happens and plays a vital role in action selection allowing us to decide between several possible behaviours to execute at any given time. Intuitive leaders can tap into this subconsciously drawing on previous successes and failures using this stored data to guide their instincts. You know when you just can’t put your finger on it, you can’t explain why you know you just know, that’s a culmination of your previous experiences reacting to the situation and letting you know to think deeper about the decision you’re about to make. That’s why we ‘sleep on it’ or ‘mull it over’ our gut instincts are telling us that our first reaction needs further consideration.
So what does this mean for us on a day to day basis? For me, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. In a system where rigorous analysis of data sets, increasing levels of accountability, compliance and fiscal responsibility challenge decision making it can be a brave decision to say no in the face of mounting evidence. Whilst all indications might be overwhelmingly in favour of a pathway, if it doesn’t sit right then take some time to think it through before making the final call. I’ve started to keep track of situations when I’ve had to make a decision and I’ve had an initial ‘gut reaction’. I am hoping that over time I can actually build up a profile of when my instincts where right and when they were off track. I’m not allowing my gut reactions to override all decisions making, that would be foolish, I’m just monitoring. What I’ve noticed is that my gut instincts have the ability to subconsciously read a situation, they pick up on ‘the vibe’ whilst my conscious mind is running the analytics. As my brain rationalises my gut will instinctively guide, the pair working in unison to survey the environment within which I am working. I’d have to say that so far my instincts have been pretty accurate and have aligned nicely to the supporting evidence behind the decision making process. In general, I’ve found when I’ve had to trust my gut; I have felt good about the decision believing that what I was doing was right. Obviously not all decisions will have a gut reaction, most made on a daily basis are founded in logic and reason, but tuning in when the odd situation arises may be useful.
We all have looming deadlines; we all feel pressure to make decisions but as leaders we need to take time to consider the implications prior to making them. When the situation arises when the gut says wait but the mind says go, I believe there are a few things you can do.
- Firstly determine if there actually is a choice, sometimes despite your instincts there is no choice, the decision can only go one way. If there is a choice, does it have to be a yes or no answer? Are there other possibilities that are a mixture of both?
- Take time to think of the pros and cons. Look at the decision from an alternate point of view and see if you’d make the same decision.
- Has your intuition clouded your judgment? Remember it’s influenced by past experiences.
- Does it feel right? Are you able to rest comfortably knowing that you made the decision?
- Finally, allow yourself time to make the decision.
I know there have been times when I’ve had to make a judgment call and for no particular reason it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Despite the logic, the reason and the mounting evidence I just had a gut feeling that this was not the right option so I chose not to do it. The next time you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when making a decision and you just can’t seem to figure out why, I’d ask that you consider your instincts, they may be better than you thought.
It’s Hard to be Humble
In our modern world of celebrity, product placement and competition there seems to be a degree of humility missing in some of our leaders. We have rock star CEOs and celebrity politicians consumed by self-importance and self-promotion pushing their own agendas with a confidence that borders on arrogance. Elements of our society seem so obsessed with personal success that humility can be seen as a sign of weakness. In a global environment that discredits someone for changing their mind or doubts someone’s motives if credit is given to a rival, it’s hard to be humble. Am I implying that humble leaders are not strong enough to make an impact in our organisations? Not at all. I believe those who act with humility have the confidence and emotional intelligence to know that it’s a collective effort that has enabled their leadership journey. These leaders are secure in their capabilities without being over confident, they have the courage to voice their opinions without overstating and they never forget where they have come from. Humble leaders understand that it is better to have someone else identify their talents than personally singing them from the rooftops.
For many humility can be seen as a sign of weakness. It doesn’t come easy to most people, especially when there are times that you need to ‘promote yourself’ to get that next job. We all have an ego and there are times when some calculated self-promotion will assist you, but it’s when this is driving you that it crosses the line. Humility is actually a really powerful tool; it allows you the ability to compromise by providing a sense of perspective and reason and an ability to accept alternate viewpoints. It also allows you to adjust, reflect and grow, attributes that are actually desirable and are worthy of self-promotion if needed. To be able to admit a mistake and demonstrate how you have overcome and learnt from it is a process that “sells’ you far more than a win on every occasion. It shows determination, reflection and strategic thinking. It demonstrates to those around you that you are capable of having robust debate and have the flexibility to change tact when needed.
Working for large organisations with various degrees of complexity we must understand that no one person can have full coverage of every aspect, issue or solution. A humble leader is comfortable admitting that they don’t know the answer; in fact they’re comfortable admitting that they may not know anything about a particular topic and deferring responsibility to someone who does. This is not admitting weakness, it’s actually utilising strength. Knowing that there are people who may be smarter or have a greater knowledge base is a critical element of leadership. Admitting that you need additional advice actually creates an opportunity for someone else to grow by providing them with space to showcase their expertise. Strong leaders are able to coordinate all resources available to them to make informed decisions. They are able to use this strategy to either secure some form of action from those around them or as a catalyst to initiate their own work. The ability to draw upon all resources openly admitting that you don’t have all the answers is a courageous leadership move that not everyone is comfortable with. Humble leaders won’t let ego get in the way of positive outcomes.
Humble leaders don’t micromanage. They understand that this level of scrutiny placed on those they work with can be harmful to productive working relationships. They pay attention to detail, they plan and have high expectations but they’re prepared to take less casualties on the journey. Micromanagement not only shows a lack of trust in your colleagues, it also shows a highly controlling personality. This not only demoralises those you work with but leads you to become less effective trying to have tight coverage and reign over all. This level of effort can only be sustained for so long. Humble leaders are able to get the same result, with a level of detail that delivers impact by asking questions not dictating terms.
Humble leaders know that they can learn from the collective intelligence in the room. Being able to look across the table at colleagues and opening your mind to new learning is a productive way of increasing your ability, knowledge base and strategic thinking. It also allows you to not become too fixated on one method of operation. Being comfortable enough to engage in debate and accept differing viewpoints, whilst not always agreeing demonstrates a clear level of leadership. Inexperienced leaders often get caught up in the power struggle trying to ensure that their idea is adopted as the final product. Whilst this allows them to come out on top in the argument it does little to the confidence of the team who may feel like there was a predetermined agenda. Successful leaders have a flexibility that focuses on the impact they want to have and the agility to change course when new evidence arises. Being humble in this situation and adopting the ideas of others not only builds a sense of team and collegiality but keeps everyone focused on the end goal. You are more likely to get successful outcomes when those you work with know that you accept and understand that there are different ways to achieve a goal. Humble leaders will acknowledge that the end point can be arrived at from many paths.
It takes a sense of humility to recognise your own areas for development and set about a plan of action to develop them. Humility allows us to seek the help of others by openly admitting that we have something to learn from those around us. History is littered with powerful leaders who lacked the humility to accept advice only to see what they had worked so hard to achieve crumble around them. Truly humble leaders understand that we are but a single part of a much larger picture. They are willing to step right outside their comfort zone even if it means that they appear not to be on top of their game. They will use these opportunities to grow, accepting contributions of others to assist them. They’ll prepare and do their homework to try and ensure they succeed, but they are willing to take the opportunity and are prepared to fail and live with the consequences. They have the humility to accept that they may not have succeeded and are willing to accept constructive advice from those around them knowing that it will strengthen their capabilities in the long run.
Working in large organisations we are often working in teams. We must recognise that we are supported by the efforts of others and give recognition when deserved. Watch a humble leader at work and there is no boasting, there is no grandstanding, they’ll happily give away credit and use a healthy sense of self-deprecating humour to deflect any kudos coming their way. It’s not to say they don’t have an ego, we all do but they are genuinely uncomfortable with praise in a public forum, they’d happily settle for a quiet ‘well done’ away from the spotlight knowing that the right decision has been made and that there is impact in the work of their team. They often display a modesty about their work, truly believing that what they are doing is just a fraction of the great work being conducted around them.
Am I a humble leader? I guess by actually asking the question and writing about it then possibly not. Claiming to be certainly negates the act itself. But I am trying to learn the lessons and apply them to my leadership journey. My challenge and possibly yours is to reflect on your behaviour each day and see if there is a degree of humility guiding it. Here are 6 things you can do to work on developing humility in your leadership.
- Admit your mistakes.
- Give credit to the work of others
- Accept others opinions (accepting is not the same as agreeing)
- Understand that you don’t have all the answers
- Let others lead
In a results driven society it’s hard to be humble. If you can build humility into your leadership repertoire those around you will thank you for it.
Always a Bridesmaid
Always the bridesmaid. You know that feeling like it’s never going to happen for you. The roller coaster of emotions that is merit selection. You left the interview feeling confident, all your referees were strong, it’s only a matter of time, you’ve got this one, you can feel the positive energy. Then you get the call, you can hear it in the voice straight away, that familiar tone that always seems to deliver bad news. It was a high quality field they say, you did exceptionally well they tell you. It’s a process that is both mentally and physically draining and at times makes you question whether you can go through it again. This is the point when your courage, grit and sheer tenacity have to kick in. You must push through and not let that downward spiral of emotion turn into a force that derails your ambition.
It can be extremely frustrating getting so close on so many occasions. The power of not being the chosen candidate can leave you feeling incredibly flat physically and emotionally. Scientists from the University from Michigan conducted a study using MRI images that demonstrated the physical and emotional power of rejection. Their study was able to make direct comparison between rejection and physical pain. They concluded that not only were both rejection and physical pain distressing but that they actually share a common neurological response. They were able to provide evidence that the region of the brain that became active in response to physical pain also became active when exposed to rejection. This supports the thoughts of unsuccessful candidates who often express that not getting that last job ‘really hurt’. For many of us we spend a great deal of time trying to balance our emotional response to rejection by adding illogical thought processes to our perceived failure. We must be careful not to overgeneralise by thinking that we will never get that job we are seeking.
Whilst it is natural to feel disappointment I firmly believe that we must turn the negative into a positive and use it as an opportunity to grow. Try not to take the decision personally. Just because there was a better candidate on this occasion does not mean that you are not highly skilled and if given the opportunity would do a magnificent job. I’ve heard too many unsuccessful candidates dwell on negative self-talk by over analysing their own skills looking for points of failure rather than using it as an opportunity to sharpen their focus. You know the spiel “I just can’t do interviews”, “I can’t talk in that educational jargon”, “If they could just watch me work”. Whilst merit selection may not be the best system, it is the one within which we operate. You must look for the positives, your CV was strong enough for your referees to be called and your referees were strong enough for you to be invited to interview. It’s a process of which you have successfully covered a majority of the moving parts. Try to think of it not as a deficit but as preparation for the next challenge, for some it will be a short sharp sprint for others it’s a marathon, it can be a difficult task but in the end the reward will be worth it.
Over my 25 years in NSW Public Education I have had the opportunity to work with many high quality educators. For some, the road leading to the next opportunity has been long and sometimes arduous. I have tried to provide some proactive advice to assist in their journey. I believe the following few steps may be useful if you’re always the bridesmaid.
Highlight Your Strengths
Most people don’t like the idea of identifying their strengths and highlighting them. At interview this is exactly what you must do and it can be an incredibly difficult task. Prior to you interview you should take time to prepare examples that show your strengths and demonstrate how they can add value to the organisation you are joining. Doing your homework and identifying your role in an organisation is crucial to a successful interview. The panel wants to know how you are going to use your strengths to enhance their operation.
Get the Question Again
Don’t be afraid to ask for the question to be repeated. Sometimes we stray from the intent of our response and start to provide a series of unrelated examples. If you feel you are off track it can be difficult to realign mid answer. My advice is to stop, admit you have gone off course and ask for the question again. The panel would much prefer to hear an answer that relates to the question than a broad generalised response with no relevance to the question.
Review Your Questions
When leaving an interview it is always good practice to try to write the questions down and consider your responses. In the event that you are unsuccessful you can use these to assist you with preparation for prospective interviews to come. It provides you an opportunity to work on any questions that you may have had difficulty with during the interview. It can also be useful to talk through the questions with your referees as they sometimes can see elements in a question that you may have missed.
Always Seek Feedback
I am surprised at the number of candidates who do not seek feedback. This is the one way you can put your mind at ease with actual answers as to why this job was not for you at this time. As an employer I firmly believe it is our responsibility to give good quality feedback to each candidate to assist them with their profession al growth. Try to find out what the successful candidate did that gave them that edge.
Like most experiences interviewing well requires a certain skillset. As with most skills it requires practice. There are not many of us who are naturally talented at walking into a room full of strangers and performing on cue. Working with a coach or mentor to structure your interview answers and practice potential scenarios will allow you to provide true and accurate responses in the pressure cooker environment of the interview. How many times have you walked out of the room and thought ‘Why didn’t I say this?’ Practice interviews allow you to structure your responses and become adaptable when that curve ball gets thrown in.
Not getting the job doesn’t feel good, but it’s not the end of the world. If you have prepared well and performed your best then maybe the job just wasn’t the right fit for you. You have gotten to this point by working hard in a highly competitive environment. You may feel like it is never going to happen and those inner thoughts and feelings of self-doubt are natural. Recognising that this negative thought process is taking up energy and being proactive in channeling it into a productive plan for your next challenge will serve you well. No matter how many interviews you have, don’t let not being the chosen candidate keep you down. Keep your head up, keep looking for the right opportunities they will come along. Every bridesmaid has their day in the spotlight and when it comes you’ll be ready.
Is This the Hill to Die On?
Is this the hill to die on? Have you ever considered that question when faced with a big decision? In leadership positions we can find ourselves in situations where some degree of compromise of our values may be necessary. Working for large organisations we often confront situations where we must match our localised needs to those of a system and this can cause moral conflict. You know those decisions when you have the voices on either side of your shoulder pulling you in opposite directions? There is a choice to be made. You know you have to stand up for what is right and sometimes this can be extremely difficult. You’re at a morale crossroads. Having the courage to do what is right at this moment can have a significant impact on your reputation, it demonstrates very clearly your strength of character and the integrity that you possess.
What is integrity? Personal integrity is thought to be having a consistent set of principles or values that when faced with a challenge or temptation you uphold them regardless of the consequences. Social theorist Larry May, suggests that personal integrity may not be as rigid as this. He is of the view that integrity is not necessarily a core set of beliefs that are unshakable, but more a web of commitments that are interwoven and open to outside influences. In essence integrity is a moral balancing act where we are forced to make judgements. It is this space, that allows us to work successfully as leaders within systems.
We are not born with or without integrity, it’s a behavioural trait that is shaped by our experiences and as such evolves. With this in mind, it is reasonable that when exposed to more information we can become less certain about steadfast rules or moral judgments that we once made, whilst our integrity per se is not compromised the ground on which our judgments are made may shift. For this reason it is important to take time with big decisions and not to react with gut instinct. We must carefully consider all avenues before opening our mouths. Sometimes silence really can be your friend.
Recently I was on a tour of far Western NSW Public Schools. A 1200km road trip with a group of Principal colleagues. We spent 4 days together visiting high performing schools in rural and remote locations. As is the case with educators the conversation never strayed far from the workplace. We spoke about the strength of what we were seeing, the implications for our own schools, we discussed the challenges and successes of our own school communities and the allocation of a finite bucket of resources across an enormous system. What became evident very clearly, was that when push came to shove the personal integrity of each and every one of these leaders could not be compromised. They understood fully that working for a large system sometimes requires a moral compromise. They acknowledged that given the context of each situation they must balance their own moral judgements against the legitimate moral judgements of others. That sometimes the greater good can be a difficult but necessary position to take. They had a clear morale purpose that aligned with their values and beliefs and they would do what was right for students regardless of the fallout. When faced with a choice they would choose students, regardless of context, community, advantage or challenge every day of the week.
There are some simple reasons why living and acting with integrity are so important. When you act with integrity you don’t have to question yourself. You’re doing what at your core you believe is right, you’re weighing up all the information you have and following your moral compass. As a leader the work is often difficult enough without creating a minefield to navigate by cutting corners, making deals and selfishly gathering resources at the detriment of the system. Those we lead will take their cues from us, for this reason it is critical that we set the standard. We must demonstrate that we are dependable and accountable for our actions.
As leaders integrity sets the foundation from which our organisation can flourish. When we act with integrity those we lead feel safe. They know that when the difficult decisions come along their leader will act fairly and that their integrity will not be compromised. These leaders build an environment where people have the opportunity to be open and honest and know that their ideas whilst not always agreed with will be treated with respect and dignity. When we work with integrity we don’t undermine colleagues, we admit to making mistakes, we don’t cast blame and we share credit when it’s due. We are open and honest in our words and actions with no misalignment. In the words of Dr Seuss, “ We say what we mean and we mean what we say”.
In the end your career will not be remembered by the title you hold, the salary you earn or the office you leave. Your career will be remembered by the way you have or have not lead with integrity. In a nutshell you’ll be remembered because you did the right thing even when no-one was watching. In the age of Local Schools, Local Decisions, integrity really is a non-negotiable. In the end those you led will know that when you picked the hill to die on you did it with the utmost integrity.
Trust – The Glue That Binds
Trust is a powerful 5 letter word that allows the human race to work effectively. It allows us to predict potential outcomes and make sense of what can be an unpredictable world. We trust that the sun will come up; we trust that our bank is securely storing our money; we trust that the lights at the intersection are working correctly as we pass through; we trust that the pilot has the correct qualifications to fly the plane. Trust is the cornerstone from which we make our decisions. It stands to reason then, that the most important part of a high functioning team is trust. It’s the foundation on which all other elements are built. As we enter a new year, some of us with new team members, some with new leadership, it’s the perfect time to start reflecting on the concept of trust.
Ask your team members if they trust the team. I’d be prepared to say that you will generally get a positive answer. If you probe a little deeper, I guarantee that you find the level of trust is conditional. You see there are certain parameters around which trust is generally given. Your team would trust that there are levels of acceptable behaviour that people abide by in the workplace. They may even go so far as to express that they trust that members of the team are working together placing individual interests aside. This though is just surface level, it’s your garden variety socially acceptable trust. High performing teams need a deeper level of credence that takes an investment of time and energy.
I believe that in the workplace trust falls into two categories. The first is that we trust our colleagues to follow the rules and the general social norms of the workplace. How we greet each other, the manner in which we interact, the sharing of resources and the general collegiality of the profession. The second is at a deeper level. This type of trust allows us to take risks, to expose our vulnerabilities, to ask for help and to remove silos. This is the level that we need across our workplaces. As a leader you need to engineer a protective environment for trust to be established. The question is ‘how do you develop this environment?’
Developing trust can be a timely process as past experiences can play a significant role in allowing it to develop. Trust is not a tick a box procedure, you can’t put in on your to do list and order someone to trust you. It’s a human emotion that can be multi-faceted. It’s a feeling we get when we share similar experiences. I’ve heard Simon Sinek say that just by doing what you say you are going to do doesn’t make you trustworthy, it just makes you reliable. I couldn’t agree more. I know some very reliable people but I’d don’t know that I’d trust them with my credit card details. However, I also know some unreliable people whom I trust implicitly. As a leader it’s a fine balance, trust is generally given from the very beginning a team is established. The difficulty is that you can only assess your decision once it has been given.
There is a great deal of research that supports the fact that shared experiences create trust. You’ll often hear that a meeting was good but the dinner afterwards was where the real learning occurred. This is because this networking time allows us to share common experiences. It provides an opportunity to share information voluntarily, building connections based on similar events. This level of informal exchange actually has an impact on our physiology by releasing the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for the positive ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling we get when we find something that strikes us emotionally. It supports the building of relationships which in turn builds trust. The more information we share and connect in a nonjudgmental way the more hormone is releasedand the stronger the bond. A study conducted by Amsterdam scientists Shalvia S. & De Dreub C. (2014) found that oxytocin actually boosted group serving behaviour, causing members of a group to act in way that would ensure the group achieves its goal. Now I’m not suggesting that we all engage in week long bonding sessions, we’ve seen how this has worked for some of sporting teams. What I am recommending however is that you spend time getting to know your team , taking time each day to touch base and build relationships.
Building trust takes time. I’m not sure there is any secret formula to building it as it’s an individual decision that is made based on a number of factors. It is my firm belief however that there are a few fundamental principles that can accelerate it.
- Share common experiences, taking time to get to know your people and taking an interest in them both professionally and personally will assist.
- Develop a shared vision; this builds trust as people understand what you are working towards together.
- Work collaboratively and do things that support your colleagues to show that you are prepared to put the needs of others before your own.
- Be consistent in your words and actions. This reduces uncertainty and brings a certain level of predictability to the workplace.
- Simply repeated the words you hear is not listening. Try to understand the message and possibly the reason behind it.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answers. Asking for assistance when you don’t know the answer can create an environment where others will do the same. Clarifying ensures the job is done the right way.
- Be flexible, it shows you’re human.
- Follow through. If you make a decision and set a plan in place follow it through.
- Always be open and honest in communication. Nothing erodes trust like hushed tones and secrets.
In a world that is increasing in speed and complexity with ever increasing demands on our time, building a strong trusting environment is crucial. If we create an environment where we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. High performing teams are not built on grudging compliance they thrive on trust. You can have the finest structures, procedures and routines in place but without trust your progress will be limited. Remember building trust really is the work before the work. It’s undeniably the glue that binds.
Have You Been Struck by The Imposter Syndrome?
I’m a fraud! This thought hit me hard just recently. I observed some of the quality leaders around me and thought, I don’t measure up. They were so confident, so articulate, infallible to a point. I have good days and bad days sure, but not like these people. They are always on top of their game, never missing a beat, across every aspect of their learning to a degree I could only imagine – or so it would seem.
Have you ever been involved in an educational conversation full of jargon when all participants are nodding at the right times and interjecting with highly technical language? Did you feel out of your depth? Have you ever been invited to speak at a professional learning session or had your work singled out for the positive impact it has made? Did you question if you were the right person to be delivering the message? Was your work really of note? Did you question if you were worthy of the praise? Was there a nagging feeling that maybe you don’t deserve to be there? You rationalise by thinking that you’re just lucky, you’ve been in the right place at the right time, you’re not doing anything different when compared to other leaders. You then start to think, what if people start asking questions? What if they dig deeper? Then you have that sinking feeling of self-doubt. You feel like you don’t measure up. Did you feel like a fraud? Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve been held hostage by the Imposter Syndrome.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both American psychologists, named the Imposter Syndrome in the late 1970’s. Their work outlined the psychological fear felt by high achieving individuals who perceived themselves to be intellectual frauds waiting to be found out and exposed. They often questioned their ability to be mixing in the company of their colleagues, feeling like they were somewhat misplaced. In the minds of those who feel it they’re not worthy of the position they had worked so hard to find themselves in. Clance and Imes concluded that people who challenge themselves and place themselves outside their comfort zone are more susceptible. These people are in a state of growth, looking to learn new skills and refine their practice because they have a firm belief that they can always improve. Acknowledging that we are always learning, whilst embracing the growth mindset, can be challenging and potentially leaves us exposed to the Imposter Syndrome.
The sometimes debilitating Imposter Syndrome can strike us all, in fact research suggests that over 70% of people will feel this way at some stage in their career. The feeling that in some way we are undeserving, that our success has come more from luck and being in the right place at the right time, than from anything we have actually achieved is at the core of the Imposter Syndrome. We doubt our ability, question our decision making processes and look for reasons outside our influence for our success. Those who get struck often neglect to look at the fact that they work hard, they do their homework and sometimes they take the calculated risks that others won’t. What we sometimes forget is that we are currently in our positions because someone saw something in us and gave us the opportunity. In times when you doubt yourself, at least have faith in those that saw your potential and gave you the opportunity. Whilst you may believe that you were lucky to be afforded the opportunity, you proactively took it and made it your own. Far too often we undersell our hard work and commitment.
The more I’ve tuned into the Imposter Syndrome the more I’m recognising it in others. It’s allowed me to take stock of those who’ve also talked about feeling this way. From what I can see, in order to feel it you must be making a positive impact. I believe you can take it as a sign that you’re on track. You can fake it for a while but eventually it will catch up with you, smoke and mirrors only lasts so long. From what I’ve observed the real imposters don’t get the syndrome. They seem to be almost oblivious, claiming to be something that they clearly are not. They continue to sell the snake oil, pumping up their own tyres regardless of the lack of progress. They show little ability to reflect on their practice continuing down well-worn neural pathways of self-praise utilising small subsets of data and research to support their work. In comparison those that feel the Imposter Syndrome often feel self-doubt. They question the accuracy of data and research, wanting to make sure that they are hanging their hats on a solid foundation. They trial new initiatives not because they are popular but because they have a belief they can enhance practice. My advice is to embrace the feeling when it comes and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflect on the work and obviously look for continuous improvement, but occasionally acknowledge that you do have some skills that serve you well.
So now that you have recognised that you may have encountered the Imposter Syndrome, I believe the following steps may assist you in using it as a tool.
- Confide in someone you trust and talk it out, not to actively seek a compliment but to get some perspective on your feelings. They can help you take an objective look at what you have achieved and guide you to understand that you’ve actually played a part in your own success.
- Understand that it’s not always about the paper credentials, don’t think you have to be the most highly credentialed person in the room to have expertise. Remember a title does not always give you credibility.
- Listen to the language you use. Sometimes the low modality of our language subconsciously leads us down the path of self-doubt. Phrases like “I’m not sure”, “it could just be me”, “I hope I’m on the right track”, “maybe I’m missing the point” shows you don’t back your own judgement. Believe that you can operate in this space and feel comfortable having an opinion.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. I’m currently involved in a learning community where we are discussing our personal assumptions that limit us. What’s interesting is that there are a great deal of people who share the same insecurities in leadership positions, yet we often hold them up as the perfect being not knowing that their own internal dialogue may be very similar to our own.
- Understand that you are growing and that you can actually change your point of view when new information comes to hand. Having an alternate opinion doesn’t make you a fraud, it makes you human. Realise that you don’t know everything and that anyone who thinks you should has placed a unrealistic expectation on you.
- Occasionally, just take that compliment. It’s good to be humble but sometimes you just have to take the compliment and say thank you.
- Know that perfection is unattainable. Celebrate you successes by reflecting on what you did that worked and refining what didn’t.
I spoke to an aspiring leader recently who was doubting their recent promotion. They trotted out the usual “I’m lucky, right place right time” line. My advice to them was simple. You can’t continually be this lucky. Be comfortable with your success and continue to work hard to maintain it. Stop and take note of how far you have come and reflect on the effort it has taken you to get there.
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever been held captive by the Imposter syndrome, try taking this test. Maybe then you can recognise it and acknowledge that you’ve had something to do with your own success. http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf
Self-belief is not arrogance, it’s not blind loyalty to a misguided cause. True self-belief comes from deep honest self-reflection underpinned by a strong moral purpose that your work is making a positive impact. Maybe I’m not a fraud after all.
Are You Brave Enough to Look in the Mirror?
I’ve just started a course that requires a high level of self-reflection and I’ve got to say it’s scary business. Reflection is something that we as leaders and indeed as educators do on a regular basis. We constantly try to find better ways to engage our audience, to deliver better outcomes for students, to strengthen and broaden opportunities for the communities we serve. Having said that there is a great deal of reflection on the behaviour of others. I’m questioning though, how deeply we reflect on our own behaviour?
As leaders we constantly analyse behaviour to look for answers as to why things did or do not happen. Unfortunately we are not always as good at analysing our own. It’s a brave thing to really reflect on your practice. There is a significant difference between thinking about what you have done and really reflecting on its impact. It’s not about negative self-talk, “I should have done this”, “Why did I do that?”’ “You’ve really messed up this time.” It should be a positive process of analysing your action, your responses and trying to identify your impact. Did your leadership drive the impact you were looking for? Did you, as I am learning at present subconsciously negate the possible outcome you were trying to achieve? It takes a great deal of courage to really drill down. It can be quite confronting at times and can leave you feeling very vulnerable when you see the harsh realities.
An easy way to dip your toe into self-reflection is by reading about leadership so you have an increasing understanding of what makes a good leader, observing others, listening to their stories and reflecting on how you would have responded in the same situations, or how you might approach a new situation. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to identify a better way of doing things almost absolves you of any fault and allows a safe space to start the practice of self-reflection. There may even be some parallels to your own context that might enable you to make some positive change. From here you can began to look inwardly to really examine what it is that could be holding you back. It may be a chance to break out of a routine that may not be as effective or efficient as it first was. I’m not suggesting that we are all flawed, what I do believe however is that everyone not matter who you are has some personal characteristic that can be developed, grown or enhanced.
Reflection is hard. Sometimes we don’t know where to begin, or just don’t want to begin. It can be quite challenging. For many of us seeing an accurate picture of ourselves with deficiencies, faults and areas for improvement can be quite confronting. The egocentric among us will proclaim “it’s them who have the problem, I know what I’m doing”. The altruist will reflect quite harshly on how they have let others down. Getting the balance right may take practice. The point of reflection is to analyse your behaviours, actions and decisions, opening them up to personal scrutiny and facing your own fears about your own professional judgment. Without true deep self-reflection I believe that you may be limiting your potential. Subconsciously you know when your best effort was not put forward and denying this and not reflecting will not make it go away, it will always be there gnawing at you. The difficulty is being 100% truthful with yourself. We have an inbuilt self-protective system that allows us to reason and justify our actions. It’s one thing to recognise our limitations, it’s another to act on improving them.
Self-reflection is possibly the first practice you will discard when things get busy but that is probably the time when it is needed most. Done correctly it can help you make accurate decisions in stressful and busy times. It is actually a really helpful tool to keep you centred, remembering the why it is that you do something. Allowing yourself quarantined time to think about your work, maybe the car trip, maybe a sneaky cup of coffee on the way to or from work can provide great opportunities for this. The point being that if you don’t dedicate time for reflection, the full agenda takes over and you move on to your next task. It’s not just the thinking about your actions that’s important here. Making plans of action, developing pathways, exploring other alternatives and testing out theories are all part of the reflective process.
Next time you go for a walk leave the phone at home and use the time to truly reflect on your leadership, you might be amazed at the answers. Try answering the following questions:
- Are you making a positive impact? How do you know?
- Would your staff choose to work at a school you lead?
- Do staff choose to follow your direction? Do they do this because they want to or because they are directed to?
- How do you feel about coming to school? Are you happy?
There is a great poem on self-reflection by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr titled “The Man In The Glass”, I highly recommend it.
Leading with Heart
The educational world is evolving faster than ever before, new pedagogy, new research, new policy, new skill sets, a constant stream of information and all within a day’s work. To combat this leaders are becoming increasingly strategic. We map out plans, initiatives, contingencies, re-evaluate, analyse, refocus and repeat. The frenetic pace of the work has many of us leading with our heads. I believe it is time to strike a balance and ensure that we spend time leading with our hearts.
It’s often said that as leaders of our schools our staff are our students. Each day we trust our staff to make an impact on the lives of the students trusted to our care. Our staff are exceptional in getting to know their students, they know their academic, social and emotional needs and are able to plan suitably challenging tasks to ensure the development of well-rounded students. How many of us can say we do the same for our staff? How many leaders can honestly say that their interactions have staff leaving school every day feeling valued, supported and cared for?
Recently I’ve spent time looking at my own leadership. I’ve spoken to leaders, I’ve read about leadership, I’ve observed leaders in action and reflected on my own practice. What I’m coming to realise is that the head style of leadership, can for the most part, be learnt by following a series of steps. Admittedly it’s not quite that easy and some of us are better at following steps than others. However heart style leadership requires something more. It requires you to give of yourself. It requires leadership of service, it requires compassion, it requires you to listen, to suspend judgement and assumptions and look for the good in everyone, it requires you to give more and care more. Leading from the heart involves getting to know your people, treating them like family. Let’s face it we spend many of our waking hours with our staff, they are our workplace family.
This idea of a workplace family is an interesting one. You’ve often heard the saying ‘you can’t choose family’ and for many of us this is often true of our staff. Just like a parent in a family you have the enormous responsibility of making sure that all members reach their full potential. As a parent, just like a leader, you are trusted to ensure the wellbeing, safety and fulfillment of those you care for or lead. I am by no means suggesting that you are the sole authority, that you alone have complete responsibility for your staff. What I do believe however is that as a parent we would never abandon our children if they made a mistake, we would never focus on their shortcomings. As a parent we would always look to support, guide and encourage. We constantly model and demonstrate the desired behaviours we’d like our children to adopt. We would never give up on our children. Sometimes though we have to apply tough love, it’s not always about making decisions that keep everybody happy. Being popular and being your children’s best friend is not always wise. There are lessons to be learnt and difficult decisions to be made but as a leader thinking about how you might parent could come in handy. I believe this will allow you to lead in a more intentional way, with the intention of ensuring your staff feel valued and cared for.
We all know that even small acts of kindness can have a ripple effect. Just recently we had ‘Happy Week’. A week when we were deliberate in our actions, we went out of our way to ensure that the week was as happy as it could be. Random acts of kindness, morning tea, kind notes and messages and a staff get together on Friday afternoon. We gave ourselves time to breathe; we intentionally created opportunities for people to sit and talk, to listen to each other’s stories. It was self-reinforcing for staff. The more we modelled the more it spread, influencing all corners of the school. What started as a small initiative sent such a powerful feeling throughout the school, it was quite staggering to see the transformation. It was almost a collective sigh of relief to know that we are in this important work of educating together. The challenge is to maintain this positive energy.
As a leader developing a culture that magnifies that positive energy can be difficult. Leading with heart, showing empathy and genuine care has the potential to create an environment of acceptance. Just as we’d like our staff to develop warm, accepting and encouraging classroom environments, our task is to create this on a larger scale. If we are able to achieve this, those we lead will be more willing to take risks, to share practice, to ask for help, to seek support and guide and to offer assistance. That trusting environment allows people to exert their energy on collaborative practice rather than developing silos of self-protection. The right environment allows people to stick their head above the parapet and have a look at what’s happening around them.
We are in a people centred environment. Professor Richard Elmore once said that “Teaching is not rocket science. It is in fact far more demanding and complex work than rocket science”. Add to this the individual personalities and it can be an emotionally charged environment. Therefore if we give more, care more, make each interaction matter, we place not just ourselves as leaders, but our entire school community in an environment that has a strong culture to withstand the tough times. We know that the tough times will come, they always do. There is truth behind the saying winning the hearts and minds. If you build the emotional connection you develop trust, this comes from the heart. In turn you develop reasoning, this comes from the mind. You need one before the other. As important as the analytical, strategic and visionary skills are, it’s a lack of interpersonal skills that derail most leaders.
To some extent this post may seem like I’m advocating for a free range, choose your own destiny environment. On the contrary, I will always maintain high expectations; I will always ensure that we place students at the centre of the decision making. What I will do however is consider the human impact and ensure that I take time to breathe, slow down and develop relationships. I believe this gives added strength and depth to leadership.
Resilience- Why we need to keep building understanding
Resilience is the ability to bounce back and cope with disappointment and I believe it’s an area we need to focus on better. During my childhood there were winners and there were losers. There were times when you were rewarded for a job well done and times when you missed out; because frankly the job you put in was just not good enough. As an educator, I’m observing a lack of resilience permeating across a range of areas within school communities. I am sure that I am not alone. In fact, I know I’m not. This is a conversation being held across all sections of our society. What I am also noticing however, is enormous amounts of resilience in the community I serve. When speaking with Principals across many disadvantaged communities they talk of similar stories. They see students who overcome enormous obstacles, trauma, economic and social disadvantage to flourish in our schools. So, why are there pockets of students who display a lack of resilience whilst others flourish and what are the factors that have created this? Is it a social change that has led us to this point? Do schools play a role? Has parenting contributed to the issue? What factors have caused this dramatic change?
Resilience is thought to be the result of a combination of factors including: individual character traits, positive thought patterns, social and emotional environments and the presence of positive relationships. It is believed that a successful combination of these factors helps to build up a person’s ability to act in a resilient manner. It is no surprise then that experiences that children have early in their life play a crucial role in the development of resilience. Being exposed to opportunities that foster self-regulation of emotions and setting boundaries that provide a stable set of rules to guide behaviour can lay a suitable foundation. In addition to this there is growing evidence that overcoming adversity as opposed to prolonged privilege can play a significant role.
Research suggests that there has been a significant shift between intrinsic motivation and a need for extrinsic reward. I believe we have perpetuated this shift through the era of ‘everybody gets a prize.’ There is an old saying ‘there are no prizes for second place’. However, now there are prizes for every place regardless of the merit. At my son’s football presentation everyone gets a trophy just for playing – there may well be a place for this, but is it an effective recognition mechanism? It seems there has been an increasing trend of rewarding mediocrity to ensure we nurture the emotional wellbeing of all involved. Whilst there is certainly a place for building emotional wellbeing, there must also be a place for realistic and honest feedback. Not everyone is good at everything, sometimes you will have to work harder and you may not get an award at the end of the day. From a whole of society perspective there is some merit in building strong, resilient young people who know that the only reward may be that the work is done. In the long run this has to have a positive impact for everyone.
The long term trend of helicopter parenting has certainly played a role in the reduction of resilience. Increasingly, parents are asking schools to become problem solvers for their children. We now have a generation of students who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have been raised by a society that carefully constructs all early interactions from play dates to indoor playgrounds and more recently non cheering sporting fields. Our children’s lives are so cautiously scrutinized that they are not given the opportunity to fail and develop their ability to problem solve and find a way out of uncomfortable situations. As parents we have placed safety nets on every corner. Students need to experience failure and realise they will survive it; life will continue. Being called a bad name, not being chosen for a team or getting out in a game is something that does not need adult intervention.
So what can we do to turn this around? We can start by reinstating the desire for intrinsic reward. We have spent a great deal of time over the last 25 years developing elaborate systems of extrinsic rewards that focus on the collection and accumulation of material possessions. This system has often led to the measure of our success being based on a numerical value. The higher the number, the greater the perception of our success. I believe the tide is turning however. We are seeing a ground swell in education where individualised and differentiated learning is developing students who are motivated to succeed by achieving personal mastery of targeted skills. There is a strong commitment to have students not just survive but to thrive by connecting and succeeding in their learning. Students are being given specific and appropriately challenging goals where success is developing personal fulfillment. I have seen students responding well to lessons that allow them to follow their interests and are customized to their level. It gives them ownership and triggers authentic learning. I am witnessing large numbers of students who are able to articulate what they know and what they need to know in their learning. This is a more positive approach than previous deficit models.
There is a growing awareness that personal thought patterns impact on resilience. This is certainly an area within our control. We need to rework our students thinking patterns. Many students believe that not knowing how to do something is the same as not being able to do it. We need to encourage our students to have faith in their ability to overcome whatever obstacles are in their path. They need to understand that new situations can be uncomfortable and difficult, but that this feeling is a part of new learning. By developing this thinking in our students we can begin to normalise setbacks and develop determination as a natural process. Students need to be comfortable with making errors and learning from their mistakes. They need to understand that it is OK to have areas that need developing. Our students who receive a ‘C’ in current reporting systems believe it is a failure. Many parents believe that their child is an ‘A’ or ‘B’ and that a ‘C’ is something that another child receives. The reality is that the vast majority of us sit within the ‘C’ area. We all have things to work on. The more we shape our thinking to understand that it is natural to have areas of development, the better off we will be.
Contextualising learning develops a connection to new learning and acts as a motivational tool for the completion of tasks. By making learning meaningful we are providing authentic opportunities for students to practice problem solving. Applied problem solving allows students to bring in background knowledge and apply new learning to situations that are relevant to their world. This allows students to identify the problem, think through possible solutions and evaluate their effectiveness before choosing an appropriate option. Most importantly in this process is the provision of quality feedback on progress and areas for development. We must set realistic goals with our students that encourage them to work hard for the basic reward of progressing and getting better. The motivating factor must be the achievement, not the piece of paper or sticker. The time is right for this type of motivation given the high level of gaming that our students are currently involved in. Gaming is based on rewarding perseverance and determination. To progress through the modern gaming world players must refine and hone their skills, without skill development the player will not progress. The reward is solving the problem, which in turn leads to a more difficult and complex level.
As a system we have a responsibility to develop high levels of resilience in our students. In NSW Public Education we have implemented The Wellbeing Framework for Schools that aims to have students contribute to not only their own wellbeing but the wellbeing of others across their school community. It is setting out a pathway that assists our students to become socially competent, optimistic problem solvers who have a healthy understanding of the ups and downs that we may face. When implementing this framework we must teach our all members of our school community that challenges and obstacles are opportunities for reflection and growth. Above all else we need to remind them that it’s a choice how you respond to adversity. If we work collectively to build resilience levels across our school communities, who knows, maybe we will all be winners.
Wellbeing – The Right Balance Starts at the Top
There are lists aplenty when it comes to what makes a great leader. They need to be courageous, creative, ethical, compassionate, strong, connected and have the ability to make strategic decisions in the best interests of the communities they serve. However when stress takes hold, when the workload builds up and that overwhelming feeling rushes over us like an insurmountable wave our focus can be impacted and we run the risk of losing sight of what is really important. I read an article recently that stated that two thirds of leaders surveyed in the study believed that their stress level is higher today than it was 5 years ago. Why is that? In some ways I guess it’s a rhetorical question. We know the demands of the job are increasing, we know the skill set is expanding; we know too well the hours are extending. I know at times the day to day demands can be intense. I hear about leaders who are feeling the pressure to keep up with the evolving nature of the educational landscape. We are certainly under the microscope of producing results, having impact from an intense educational reform platform. So, what impact is this having on our leaders and what can we do to right the ship?
In my conversations with colleagues there seems to be a culture of soldiering on. We are leaders, we can deal with pressure, we don’t have time to slow down, the work needs to be done. It could be perceived as a sign of weakness if we we’re not coping. I also hear of some colleagues who feel they need to appear to be stressed as if there is some unwritten expectation of leadership that you need to be over worked, overloaded and turning out eighteen hour days. Whilst I agree as leaders we need to work hard, we should work hard, we are tasked with a great deal of responsibility. I also believe that we need to strike the right work life balance. We need to be able to identify our own signals of stress and ensure we are able to put things in place to manage our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our staff……..outlets away from work for every leader are vitally important.
So what are the things that seem to cause us stress? During this period of significant educational reform the ever increasing workload plays a major role. We seem to almost get a handle on one concept and another is handed to us, with two more waiting in the wings and then the required compliance matters which never escape us. As leaders we need to be very focussed on what is important. What is it that will have impact? If it has no impact, if it does not relate to what will make a difference for students then eliminate it. It’s been said thousands of times before, but doing a few things well is far better than doing a number of things poorly. Assess what is achievable and work towards it, when we overload our schedules we set ourselves and others up for failure. Much of our stress comes from circumstances beyond our control. Whilst I recognise that we can never eliminate all of the low impact initiatives, we must certainly do everything in our power to make sure the main thing, is the main thing. Focus on what you can take carriage of and make a difference in that area. The external pressure will always be there, by acknowledging this and accepting that it is beyond your control allows you to move on and get on with the job. I believe this is a positive and proactive approach. Showing leadership in this area will not only reduce your stress but will go a long way to eliminating the stress of your staff.
It can be highly stressful dealing with conflict and difficult personalities. I know of many leaders who lose sleep thinking about how they are going have a difficult conversation. The ability to mediate and lead negotiations between personalities to find successful outcomes can be a very difficult and taxing process. It can be challenging to find common ground and at times decisions need to be made that may not please opposing sides. This can weigh heavily on us as leaders. It is common that one side will have a very limited view and cannot see the wider implications of their actions. This tests our skill when trying to navigate these discussions making sure that we listen attentively whilst trying to guide both parties to a successful resolution. Understanding the difference between personal and professional opinion and being able to distinctly separate them so that your judgement is not clouded can be a difficult task. I’ve found that having a plan, thinking through the conversations and trying to anticipate alternatives is helpful and assists greatly in preparation for potentially difficult conversations. Identifying your personal and professional opinion on the subject and trying to view it from the first floor rather than ground level gives some perspective. In difficult conversations perception can become reality for some, so trying to consider how your responses may be perceived is also a useful preparation tool. If you are temporarily able to see your responses through the eyes of others and utilise a degree of emotional intelligence you can be more strategic in your management which maximises the opportunity for a successful resolution.
Another area of frustration I hear from leaders is the roller coaster ride that is maintaining momentum in the implementation of initiatives. We see it regularly. The high quality professional learning has been delivered, the fire in the belly has been ignited, and there is a definitive way forward. The staff are on board, you can almost smell the enthusiasm and passion in the air and then 24 hours later, it’s died down and the flaws in the plan have been highlighted. The reasons why it can’t be achieved have taken you on the one step forward, two steps back dance. I know that feeling I hear you say, it happens here, I leave work in the afternoon feeling great and then by the next morning the weight is firmly back on my shoulders. I believe that we need to focus on progress not perfection. We need to look for and celebrate the small steps forward. Setting long term goals with small increments built in develops the idea that drops in a bucket add up. I’ve found this approach alleviates the frustration. It allows you to anticipate the road blocks and set appropriate detours along the way. Take time out to celebrate the progress and reflect on the incremental achievements. But most importantly don’t ride yourself too hard, there are many working parts to a well-oiled machine and sometimes they just need a little extra oil.
We know that stress can hinder us, but it can also be a force that fortifies our efforts. To use it as a motivator we need to be able to recognise it coming on and monitor our own stress responses. I know when I’m getting stressed. I lose focus, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, I feel like I will never get the work done. I look at the list, the pile of papers, the full calendar and try to navigate safe passage. I don’t listen as well at this time, I know I’m preoccupied thinking about what needs to be done. It’s at this time that I have to stop and go for a walk, visit a class, take a time out. This short period away allows me to develop some perspective. The work will get done, it always does. In times of high stress I believe we have a tendency to over think the work, to make things more complicated than they need to be. I find making a list of what needs to be done today and what can wait helps to put things in perspective. Thinking about each task and asking, will it really matter if it does not get done today? Defining the task and clarifying what the expectation is assists in bringing it to its simplest form making it more manageable. Using this method I can make an immediate to do list allowing me to focus on the most important tasks in an organised manner. I then set very clear timeframes, you will not be doing your best work during an all-nighter. Be realistic about what you can achieve, depriving yourself of sleep and some down time will not help alleviate your stress. Remember balance is key. Making time to unwind, prioritize what is important. Sometimes the task immediately in front of us gets all the attention when it could possibly be the task that can wait. It’s important to think the tasks through and evaluate what has to be done today and by whom. I believe this is critically important as leaders. If we can use this method when running our eye over the whole school we can help alleviate the pressure our staff feel as well. Let them know they have time, ensure they are able to identify what is important and allow them the ebb and flow of a balanced work environment.
As the leader of your workplace the culture you create in ensuring that there is the right balance rests solely on your shoulders. Listen carefully, observe closely and lead by example in maintaining a healthy balance. Getting the work life balance can be difficult thing, but it’s vitally important. Your wellbeing goes a long way to ensuring the wellbeing of your staff. The right balance starts at the top. People will look to you to see what the expectation is. I’ve often listened to world class athletes who whilst working at the top of their personal performance on a daily basis also talk about the importance of recovery. They spend almost as much time preparing and performing as they do systematically recovering in preparation to do it all again. They also take time to discuss their performance and schedules with someone. Reaching out and talking to a colleague can help put things in perspective. Stress is part of leadership, you can let it rule you or you can take charge. After reading this blog why not try to answer the following questions. What are you doing to recover? How do you manage your stress? Do you recognise the signs? What strategies have you got in place to alleviate it? Develop a plan, because we need you to be at the top of your game every day. Our students are too important for you not to be. At the end of the day you are charged with making a positive impact on the students you serve, I’m sure you’ll agree that thought alone has a positive impact on your wellbeing.
Educations First Responders
Recently I was listening to a paramedic who was discussing the dramatic events that had unfolded in their day. They highlighted the fact that in many cases they are the first on the scene and that it is their vitally important work that saves lives. As a first responder they are assigned the responsibility to assess rapidly and intervene immediately to ensure the long term health of the people they serve. This got me thinking. In education, we have a sharp focus on early intervention. Those tasked with this role really are educations first responders. They are there to help assess, diagnose and provide targeted intervention to those in need.
The primary goal of educations first responders is to address learning needs in a timely manner. The research is undeniable that the longer learning needs are overlooked the wider the gap becomes as the complexity of schooling increases. There is some evidence supporting the theory that not investing in early intervention has long term economic implications on a nation. The importance of early access to specifically designed tiered intervention is being recognised globally and has certainly been highlighted by the NSW Public Education system with programs such as Early Action for Success.
There is a wide variety of early intervention strategies that schools are undertaking delivered via personalised learning in the classroom, small group or individualised instruction or intensive one on one support for our students most at risk. I firmly believe that the current use of syllabus documents with the assistance of literacy and numeracy continuums has placed an emphasis on personalised learning like never before. This current shift is directly supporting a three tiered approach to early intervention and is increasing our ability to effectively target the specific needs of the individual.
The culture of our entire system now has a sharp focus on where the individual student is in their learning and what strategies would be best placed to move them to the next stage of learning. Whilst this has always been at the heart of teaching, it is my opinion that current pedagogy supported by new funding models are enabling this to take place at a much broader level. There has certainly been a move from a focus on whole class to a focus on the needs of the individual student. In my school there has been and continues to be high quality professional learning opportunities that strengthen and deepen understanding about how student learning occurs and how this is effectively tracked and monitored.
Schools have always utilised data to track and monitor student progress. There has always been system based and school based data that has informed the effectiveness of teaching and learning programs. At present the collection and use of a broader range of individualised data is enabling us to provide high quality early intervention in a timely manner. This is vitally important as the window of opportunity for these moments where we can have maximum impact can close rapidly. If we do not have accurate data, that is accessible, reliable and user friendly then we are potentially missing some of our most teachable moments.
Our collection of data is being supported by quarantined time for data talks. Data talks provide opportunities to share and discuss practice and develop a consistency of understanding between teachers. These specifically scheduled occurences are providing teachers with the platform to decide which students need support and what type of intervention is needed based on predetermined expectations or achievement levels. This therefore places a great deal of importance in the understanding of and collection of accurate data. Consistency of understanding is key here. Discrepancies in understanding of expectations can mean that our most vulnerable students miss out on vitally important opportunities. Having highly talented interventionists working shoulder to shoulder with teacher colleagues is helping to reduce the variability in understanding. This method is strengthening the profession by ensuring that professional learning is targeted and contextual, addressing the individual needs of teachers as well as students.
In many areas the specialist skills of our early interventionists is driving high quality professional learning. Their ability to work shoulder to shoulder with colleagues in classrooms is creating a culture where conversations are focusing on successful teaching practice that connect directly to student learning. This method is allowing teachers to give and receive feedback, to hone their craft and refine their lesson delivery. This valuable process has been recognised by the NSW Public Education system who has introduced systems to support its continued success. Initiatives such as the Performance Development Framework and the Quality Teaching, Successful Students initiative are creating opportunities for collaborative mentoring and coaching practices. The PDF allows teachers the opportunity to collaboratively identify specific areas of their own teaching they would like to strengthen and affords opportunities to observe best practice methods. Under QTSS Principals in consultation with their executive staff will now have the flexibility to ensure that opportunities for shoulder to shoulder work continue using evidence based approaches to improve student learning outcomes. Whilst both initiatives support the full spectrum of the teaching profession they are also assisting in the continued development of our early interventionists.
I am very thankful that we have educational first responders, they have a deep understanding of how students learn and an undeniable ability to assess and develop appropriately supported interventions. Like their community counterparts they can be first on the scene and their work can form the basis of the long term outcomes for those with very specific needs. Their work in supporting our students to reach their potential despite the many hurdles that some face with their learning is inspiring. They, like our community first responders know the importance of early intervention. Let’s hope our systems of government at all levels continue to support early intervention. In the formulation of long term plans, strategically investing in early intervention initiatives pays long term dividends.
How Are You Building a Strong System?
It’s now more important than ever that we develop a systems view. With the increasing demands on our schools, the move towards more local based decision making and the increased expectations of stakeholders we must ensure that we are all working towards maintaining and enhancing a strong sustainable education system. I remember in my first few years of teaching focussing on making my class the best it can be, then as AP making my stage the best it can be, as a first time principal ensuring my school could be the best it could be. As I’ve grown as a leader, I’ve developed a systems view and whilst I firmly believe that making the individual moving parts of each and every school the best they can be it should not be at the detriment of the system. A strong collegial approach raises the achievement of all levels of a system.
Now in my second principalship I’ve been strongly advocating for the development of a systems view at a local level. Whilst most schools strongly encourage collaboration and sharing of high impact practice across classes, grades and stages there is now an increasing focus on broadening cross school collaboration. This process of cross pollination between schools and networks is forming the basis of some strong educational alliances.
The most successful systems have a clear strategy to guide their decision making. They also have the ability to change, adapt and refocus if their strategy meets unexpected obstacles. This provides an opportunity to see how adaptable the system is, whether it is bound by a rigid set of regulations or has the flexibility to meet the changing demands of the communities it serves. Our system has evolved, removing geographical footprints and encouraging cross network collaboration, enabling the systems view to take hold. Some would argue that this has been through necessity rather than design, regardless of the impetus for change the platform has been laid and the environment created for a strong transition.
Our system has now positioned Principals at the top of the hierarchical structure to promote a systems leadership approach. This view is reinforced by our new model of funding which is giving school leaders greater flexibility to spread their sphere of influence across networks. This expansion across networks is supporting our systems view by not locking us into previously existing silos. This has created a strong interwoven fabric that is expanding at a rapid rate across networks, encouraging school leaders to adopt a systemic view across all levels of their school. We are sharing expertise, resources and initiatives like never before leading to strong communities of practices relentlessly pursuing excellence for their students. This is enhancing high expectations and quality practice by enabling a cross pollination effect. The opportunity to work across multiple sites sharing practice and feeding into a network builds strong communities of practice which has the potential to maximise impact beyond previously constrained geographical boundaries. It allows the collection of early adaptors who can in turn create an almost moral purpose to drive service at a wider system level rather than individual pockets of expertise.
Systems leadership does not have to come for the Principal, on the contrary systems leadership comes from within, at any layer, at any level. This is the mindset that we need to cultivate, it needs to be modelled and supported by Principals so that it becomes the behavioural norm. At a school level we need to provide opportunities to build capacity and feed back into the system. As Principals we are in a powerful position to ensure that our schools adopt a big picture view and help to sustain a strong, innovative system.
As systems leaders we need to understand the different levels of our organisation and how they link. It is important that we look beyond our location and see how it fits into the bigger picture. It can be difficult at times to understand decisions made outside the school context. Sometimes our own local needs are front and centre clouding our ability to see a bigger picture. It is the ability however to see the bigger picture that enables the individual to accept allocation of resources both physical and financial. Whilst I will always advocate for more resourcing for our schools, there are times when there is a finite amount. Understanding this, whilst not accepting it, shows a maturity towards the system. This type of thinking focuses us on the concept of service to collectively build a strong and sustainable system. Systems leaders look to enhance the entire organisation within the current constraints, whilst always advocating for more.
Systems leaders provide a highly interrelated style of leadership, varying their style depending on the context. It can be delicate work managing this type of leadership, balancing local based resources whilst attempting to see how your context can assist in growing and supporting the skill base of others. The end result of systems leadership though is the development of strong and collaborative networks at every level. As systems leaders we continue to grow always evolving as the demands and needs of our communities change. We are relentless in the pursuit of building a strong and sustainable system. We ensure that we build the skills and capacity locally whilst keeping an eye on how we can feed into the system. It is our collectively responsibility to develop the next generation of people to fill our current roles, in this way we are preparing potential candidates to feed back into the system at every level.
I would encourage school leaders to invest in systems leadership at every level of their school. We are at a point in educational history where we are creating the systems that we want to be part of. We have a duty to our students and the communities we serve to take an active role in that development. The current education platform is encouraging us to be aspirational, to be visionary in our approach. I see systems thinking as the ability to tackle that challenge by bringing large numbers of colleagues to the collective table to shape our future. The strength of systems thinking is the multiple viewpoints it generates and the ability to use collective hindsight to reflect, refine and refocus. This year I strongly encourage you to examine your commitment to systems thinking. How are you helping to shape and create our Public Education system?
Grab the Opportunity with Both Hands
“If you wait til you’re ready, you’ll never be ready”, these are the words of advice from a former Director who encouraged me to enter the principalship. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. That’s generally the case when we look at taking on the next layer of leadership. Those who support us and develop us know when we are ready usually before we do. This year, I encourage all potential leaders to seriously consider taking that next step. To back their skill set and grab the opportunity with both hands.
No one ever feels ready to take on a new role. You always question yourself. How many will look at a criteria and find the 1 thing they can’t do as opposed to the 5 they can do. Remember that there are elements that you will learn whilst in the role. You would not have got to this point in your career if you did not have the skill set or capability to learn and grow. Alleviate that uncertainty by committing to the role and working hard to acquire new skills. Very few leaders are experts across all areas. Successful leaders know how to find the information out, they know how to locate the knowledge base, the policy, the expert or relevant directorate to get detailed and accurate advice. You too will grow in your new role just as you have in your current one. Focus on what you can bring to the role rather than the learning ahead.
Whilst I believe firmly in seizing the opportunity when it arises, I also believe that just because the next position opens up it does not mean you should take it. You have to do your homework. Is it the right place for you? Can you add value to the programs, structures or initiatives? It is important to learn a little bit about the next environment and ensure that your skill set is compatible. Think closely about what your aspirations are and how they align to the role in this setting. What are you looking for at this level? Will there be opportunities to grow? Doing your homework will allow you to make an informed decision about your next career move and position you well to grab the opportunity when it arises.
Once you have taken that leap and secured your next leadership position prepare yourself to be challenged and commit to it. Your new leadership role will test you, it will test you professionally and emotionally. You will probably question your ability to do the job, but how you handle this self-doubt will help shape how you grow in your role. You will have to be prepared for change and possible resistance. This is an inevitable part of leadership and despite your skill set and level of experience, it will challenge you. This is when you have to use your emotional intelligence to navigate and work with your team. Knowing when to talk and when not to, when to negotiate and when to stand firm is contextual. Laying the foundation of developing relationships and getting to know your staff will be crucial in guiding your judgement here. Take time to get to know your new context, observe and listen carefully in order to understand your staff dynamics. Understanding the roles, responsibilities and personalities of staff will assist you greatly in challenging times.
When you take up that new leadership role you want to make a positive impression, however, it’s difficult to lead if you have a need to be liked. Some people aren’t able to lead because of this. I highly encourage you to make positive respectful connections but it can’t cloud your judgement. There will be times when you will need to make tough decisions that could be unpopular. Many leaders lose a great deal of sleep over this. You do everyone a disservice when you give into your feelings and don’t make the right decision, or take the soft option. You will never please everybody, you know this. Don’t be rushed into making decisions, think them through, look at them from different viewpoints and do what is in the best interests of the students. Remember it’s okay to change your mind, it just shows that you’re human. Admitting that you have made a mistake rather than blaming others will help build trust and shows your integrity, it also helps foster this in others. People are fairly forgiving when they know you are making decisions for the right reasons.
Being self-aware and knowing your areas of strength and areas of development will be one of your biggest leadership challenges in a new role. For many of us as we enter leadership positions our self-awareness usually focuses on criticism, on highlighting our weaknesses. You will need to work beyond this and focus on what you need to do rather than what you should have done. A positive outlook will energise you, whereas focusing on the negative can be emotionally draining. Think of the high energy level and sharp focus you have when you are developing new ideas and compare this to the lack of motivation and that sinking feeling you have when things don’t work out as planned. Working on solutions is the best way forward.
This year I encourage you to embrace that opportunity. To set your goal and work towards it. Is it the right time? Will there ever be a right time? If not now, when? Someone has seen leadership qualities in you. It’s time to step up, believe in yourself and grab that opportunity with both hands.
Leadership Development, a Strategic Investment
Developing leadership capacity is not an isolated incident, it’s a strategic investment in the long term future of your organisation. Principals and educational leaders need to be proactive and intentional in developing leadership capacity. Strong educational leaders have the ability to identify talent. They specifically target future leaders and dedicate time and energy in providing opportunities for growth.
Over the last 3 years I have witnessed an increasing turnover of senior leadership across the education sector. Given that, in the last 2 years 1000 of the 2219 NSW Public School Principals are either new or new to their school and there is an estimated 50% replacement over the next 3 years of the 10000 cross sectorial Principals Australia wide we are facing a time of unprecedented leadership change. Principals across the globe face higher levels of pressure than ever before with increased societal and political demands and greater scrutiny on performance, the job is challenging and complex and requires the right type of leaders.
If you asked Principals worldwide how many felt prepared for their job prior to entering the principalship I’d be surprised if more than 30% felt ready or adequately prepared for the challenge. The question has to be asked what are you doing to develop the next generation of leaders at your school? How many schools have leadership preparation programs in place to support their aspiring leaders?
One of the challenges for leaders when they are developing others is finding the right person. Sometimes we look for people who have so many similarities to our leadership style that we run the risk of developing a clone not a new leader. At best this is a replacement plan not a succession plan. A succession plan identifies talent and strategically grooms for the future rather than immediate turn over. Aspiring leader programs should be mid to long term specifically developing skills and capabilities and providing targeted opportunities for development.
Providing the right environment and conditions for our aspiring leaders is crucial. We must create opportunities to learn where they feel safe to take appropriate educational risks for student and staff benefit. Imagine a circus acrobat learning a new trick without a safety net, very few would take the risk, especially after the first acrobat makes a mistake. I’m not suggesting that we provide no guidance and allow education risk taking behaviour without any evidence or rationale to support the initiative. On the contrary I believe targeting and guiding aspiring leaders into specific areas helps establish informed and calculated education decision making.
At times it can be difficult to stretch our aspiring leaders out of their comfort zones and look for new opportunities as it is their current skill set that has served them well to this point. This is the skill set they rely on when they encounter new situations. The same can be said for giving aspiring leaders the same types of tasks repeatedly. To grow, aspiring leaders need new and challenging opportunities. There are also the aspiring leaders that we need to temper. This can be a difficult situation for a Principal as we don’t want to curb the enthusiasm. In both cases I believe Principals should ask questions rather than provide answers. We have the ability to use our experience to provide alternative scenarios that can expand ideas and develop and mould our future leaders in a supportive yet challenging environment. As Principals we have a responsibility to provide experiences for our aspiring leaders that develop their skill sets. We must provide feedback and allow them to examine their decisions and actions and place a critical lens over how they would or would not conduct that task if faced with it again.
As leaders we need to understand that at times you need to coach and at others you need to mentor. Coaching allows you to guide aspiring leaders through processes that you have encountered before, where you are developing their skill set in routines and systems, it is very much task orientated. Mentoring on the other hand challenges and increases capacity, it allows for career and personal development, it develops the leader as a person. Both situations though have times when they place aspiring leaders in their stretch zone and add a degree of stress. Aspiring leaders won’t learn to deal with stress unless they are working through challenging situations. These challenging experiences require them to “ride the wave”. They need to understand that in stressful situations tasks can seem insurmountable but careful planning and working through your process logically will see you on the other side of the wave. This ability to overcome obstacles and stressful situations is critical in developing their capacity to succeed.
As a Principal you must be honest with aspiring leaders and assist them to develop their areas of weakness. It does the aspiring leader no favours if you embellish their achievements. Developing strength of character is a critical factor in today’s everyone’s a winner world. To be able to take on-board constructive advice even if it is unpopular is essential for growth. By being honest and pinpointing areas for development you are providing a clear professional pathway. When providing feedback it is important to build in opportunities for self-reflection. These must be honest and really have the aspiring leader examine their commitment, perseverance and discipline in achieving their goals. Open, honest self-reflection about their dedication and ability to grow and change is essential for increased leadership capacity.
One area of growth for aspiring leaders that can be particularly challenging is seeing the big picture. For many their leadership journey to this point has revolved around ensuring that their grade, stage or team has been able to work effectively. Their primary leadership focus has been to successfully resource, organise and navigate a clear path for their team as a part of the bigger whole school picture. The development of a whole school focus and even greater still, a whole system focus can be quite a difficult concept. There are times when competing priorities will test their ability to guide their stage, team or grade into areas for the greater good. This is an area where Principals need to work extremely closely with their aspiring leaders to ensure a clear and consistent message is being delivered.
As Principals we must purposefully invest in our future leaders to ensure we have a pool of highly competent professionals ready to take on the next level of responsibility. I suggest once you have identified the next generation of leaders ask them the following questions. What do you they want to achieve in the next 6 months, 12 months, 2 years? What performance measures do they have in place to keep them on track? You then need to support them as they map out a plan that fosters their development and provides appropriate leadership opportunities.
It is our responsibility as Principals to grow the next level of leaders. It’s an investment in the future. As with most good investments being wise about choice and being strategic in implementation ensures you receive a dividend on maturity. As we know, leadership requires following a path of inward and outward reflection, it’s not linear and there are obstacles along the way but the continual growth on that journey certainly makes it worthwhile. As Principals we must select carefully, invest wisely and enjoy the journey with our aspiring leaders.