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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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, but 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.
“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.