I recently saw Amanda Nimon-Peters discussing whether business schools develop leadership. Her main point really rang true for me and I wish I’d heard it many years ago:
“Knowing how to do something is not at all the same as being able to do it yourself.”
I know how to play Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. But when I start to play it, I can’t get through the first few bars without going hopelessly wrong. In cricket, I know how a cover drive is played to a ball coming down over 90 mph. I can’t do it.
This seems to me why some people appear to have all the credentials to be a school leader but in practice fall short. Perhaps others, like me, appear to be very short of the orthodox background to lead but might in practice become successful. Knowledge is great… but we need skills too!
I worked in four main areas in schools (music, sport, drama & marketing) at primary and secondary level. A right old ‘Jack-of-all-trades’. When I started out as a Head I thought that this kind of background would be a bit unusual. However, I have since discovered that, like most of my achievements, it is far from remarkable. I wonder why?
How did I draw on my rather varied experiences? Were they useful?
In hindsight, here are 7 deadly skills I drew on to help me:
Having a clear vision is probably the most important aspect of leading because it answers the ‘why?’. If you’ve taught optional subjects and had to convince teenagers to give up many hours of their time to work themselves crazy on a drama or musical production, you know the vital importance of selling them the vision, its benefits and the ‘why?’! Without that, they simply don’t turn up!
So, when I became a Deputy Head and then Head I realised straight away that I could only take people with me if I made it clear where we were going. The pain, the uncertainty, the hard work and the risk would all be worth it. The rewards are a long way off. To ask people to take a leap of faith they need to know what it will look and feel like and when it’s been achieved. They need to feel secure: teenagers hate being made to look stupid but they’ll be prepared to perform/dress up in all sorts of guises if they feel the joy and satisfaction of pulling off a great show is a realistic goal at the end of it all.
Vision needs a narrative. As a teacher, I had to show many sets of prospective parents around schools. I used this experience to distil a story. Not a description of the buildings and provision but a pupil’s journey, their experiences, and the potential to open doors to an exciting future of their choice. It was about a focus on the individual and a breadth of opportunity which enabled all to shine. This works for adults too!
As a leader, you do need to be able to talk convincingly in public. For some peculiar reason, a lot of teachers feel more comfortable speaking in front of children than in front of adults. Personally, I’d say the former is far scarier! But there are those who will happily take an assembly in front of hundreds of small children or even teenagers and yet quake at the thought of explaining a new curriculum to a few parents! They forget – it’s just a performance. My experience of performing was far more terrifying. As a horn player, there is a lot that can go wrong – and very publicly!
So, I drew on the fact that people wanted to be engaged and entertained. They are not consumed by errors or mistakes but excited by the chance of experiencing something special. I realised I had learnt to use my nerves alongside a bit of self-deprecation or humour. This puts you and others at ease. Putting others at ease is great leadership in my experience.
The ability to inspire children is what good teaching does. Inspiring adults is no different. They need to know you care about them and will look after them. The privilege of doing a fair amount of one-to-one teaching and coaching taught me a vast amount of useful skills. When it’s not working for them, there is nowhere to go! 40 minutes can be an eternity! You have to find another way of explaining it, another method of inspiring them or keeping them going through adversity. Sometimes you have to wipe away the tears of frustration. Different people react very differently to the same circumstance, especially when they’re learning something new.
For me, inspiring people is, therefore, about understanding them. It’s about adapting your story to the individual, judging when they need to be coached, mentored or instructed. Knowing when to push hard, challenge or back off. It’s not magic or personality; it’s emotional intelligence. People will think you are charismatic if you have enabled them to do something they didn’t believe they could!
It’s also about rewards, encouragement, reminding them how far they have come. Letting go and allowing them to experience their own successes – and failures. Creating an appetite for ambition and aspiration, so they can aim for new heights and feel the satisfaction of their endeavours.
People bring you problems! They need training to bring you solutions. I did a bit of maths teaching early in my career and this taught me to let the pupil who was supposedly ‘stuck’ to work through the problem. Of course you can guide – but if they delve deep to find their own solution they feel a sense of pride; they go forward; they work more independently and confidently.
Decision-making and difficult conversations are often the most daunting aspect of a leadership role – partly because they can be wrong and come back and haunt you. Leadership is so much about behaviour and decision-making. So many of even our most famous leaders seem to have had considerable failures and sometimes seem to have ‘had their day’. This is why the likes of Thatcher and Churchill could at some times appear to have been so very right and at others seem to get things so very wrong. Consider how so many football managers appear to go from ‘hero to zero’ either within a single club or when moving from one to another. I presided over some highly successful teams and ensembles in national competitions but could come back down to earth sharply when a particular group moved on. It taught me to invest in the future and in upcoming talent. If you just live in the moment, performance can soon fall sharply.
Many years ago when discussing the marketing challenges that confronted our school, I was introduced to the idea of the ‘invisible boardroom’. When confronted by a dilemma we can start to imagine what great minds would do. ‘What would Branson, Churchill or our best boss do in this situation?’ We can draw on the skills, traits and methods of others to help us to think, act and behave like the best aspects of several leaders and in doing that we gain a confidence that, if we don’t seem to be like an archetypal leader, we can nonetheless be highly successful.
Great companies and businesses are always looking to improve, develop, be ahead of the game as well as react to external forces. So, we must always be aware of the need to change and decide where to go next.
Difficult people. They are everywhere. It’s not just you! Without being patronising, I tend to think of people who are being awkward as like children. They have different needs, anxieties, strengths and weaknesses. Don’t expect them to change without your input. And if they are employees, don’t expect them to do it just because they’re paid!
I’ve come across all sorts! Peripatetic music teachers who grumbled about their room, their pupils, background noise or even the noise in their teaching room! Teachers who thought they had the wrong pupils, wrong set, wrong room and wrong timetable – or didn’t like doing reports (which for me is like doctors being fed up with prescribing medicine!).
I found it incredibly useful to think of the staff as a sports’ team or an orchestra. Mike Brearley, the successful England cricket captain, was highly skilled at ensuring the message he gave to his players was the right one for each individual. Some needed challenging, others reassuring; some thrived on confrontation or risk, others on security and harmony; some enjoyed performing solo and others in a team. So, I used the knowledge and the skills I had developed in coaching and training, to match the roles, the tasks and the message to the individual motive and personality profiles.
Appointing staff is a key skill. You have to work with the people you choose. How they perform at interview or in their current role can be very different to their actual performance in the new one. I felt fortunate having had to pick teams in my coaching role. The analogy was clear. I needed those who could play different parts. I needed those with skills I didn’t have – they were no threat to me. A conductor of an orchestra basks in the glory of the achievements and skills of those around them. Nobody cares that you can’t play their instrument as well as they can. Getting them to play together and appreciate each other is another story altogether! (See Inspiration!)
Who would have them? It’s impossible to please some. No easy solution here. Why?
Mostly because they worry about their child and want things to go smoothly/perfectly for them. ‘Snowplough’ or ‘helicopter’ parents!
There is no easy answer to this and I made many mistakes! They get very upset if their child is not at the centre of everything. Selection for anything often causes heartache. I knew this having spent so much time picking children to play in teams, choosing those to have leading parts in productions or to play solos in concerts. I stuck to principles. Do what’s in everyone’s best interests, don’t have favourites and balance the pursuit of excellence with opportunities for all. Dealing with disappointed parents also told me a trick that sometimes works for resolving issues:
I found it very easy to identify underperformance or poor standards. Much harder to improve them. However, in Somerset I worked for many years with a gifted cricket coach, Dennis Breakwell. His genius lay in taking what he saw a bowler or batsman could already do and building on it. He avoided trying to mould or manufacture players. Instead he tweaked their technique in small, incremental steps. This kept them on board, trusting in the coach and finding some success as they faced significant longer-term challenges. It was, in hindsight, brilliant: different tips for varied abilities and types; if you can’t play a particular shot or bowl a particular ball then leave it out! (At least until you’ve perfected it). Staff are not robots or clones; they need to be able to use their individual strengths whilst delivering in a way that meets the required standards.
While you’re doing all this, you are building a climate for all to contribute and all to succeed. One where people can give their best, feel challenged but safe; excited but a little apprehensive; secure & rewarded but not complacent; clear about what is expected but prepared to take risks or innovate for the good of all. Gradually, bit by bit you will develop a culture of mutual dependence, horizontal responsibility and discretionary effort.
Perhaps my teaching career was actually a great preparation for leadership and headship – I just didn’t know it!