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Looking to the Future

It is always too easy to let the urgent get in the way of the important, to expend so much energy on the day-to-day dramas that there is not enough left in the tank to focus on what really matters, particularly in terms of planning for the future.  A cynical view might be to say that it is easy to mistake the edge of the rut you are in for the horizon, but the words of the leadership guru Professor Warren Bennis probably sum things up rather better: ‘The manager administers; the leader innovates.  The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.  The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.  The manager has their eye on the bottom line; the leader has their eye on the horizon.  The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.’

This was one of several quotations I used in my start of term presentation to my colleagues last week, as part of the process of trying to take what we do to the next level.  I pointed out, not for the first time, that successful organisations have passion and purpose, structure and systems, imagination and regular reflection.  In the words of French polymath Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘If you want to build a ship then don’t drum up men to gather wood, give orders and divide the work.  Rather, teach them to yearn for the far and endless sea.’

More prosaically, I made the point that developing effective line management techniques and a coaching culture in our school will make all our lives easier, leading to fewer issues, smoother core operations, stronger staff engagement and a greater sense of all-round satisfaction.  It will also help to lay the groundwork for the new school we want to build, helping us to move from a ‘small school’ to a ‘large school’ mentality.

Leadership coach Professor Nigel MacLennan wrote, ‘Directing people “to do” has always produced inferior results compared to inspiring people to want to do.  Coaching is the process whereby one individual helps another: to unlock their natural ability; to perform, learn and achieve; to increase awareness of factors that determine performance; to increase their sense of self-responsibility and ownership of their performance; to self-coach; to identify and remove internal barriers to achieve.’

As a school, we should be seeking to create a high-performing environment where everyone aspires to be the best they can; a body of staff who develop and inspire those around them; colleagues who help each other grow and enjoy our profession; people who have capacity, resilience and self-awareness, both as individuals and as part of the organisation; and a team where everyone is travelling in the same direction with the same ultimate ambition.  We need to develop more effective distributed leadership to both senior and middle managers; a culture of greater personal accountability alongside stronger ambitions; more effective ways of recognising discretionary effort; and better systems to identify potential and improve succession planning.

I then talked about some of the key attributes of developmental line management, the power of effective listening skills and some of the coaching techniques that could usefully be deployed to help the adults in the school maximise their potential in the same way that we try to achieve with the children.

My final slide had three quotations to make what I regard as three important points that apply to every aspect of our lives, not just at work, and I am sure they apply in your walk of life as well as mine, because they are an integral part of the human condition.  Firstly, using words from Ted Lasso, my favourite fictional football coach, I said that time complaining about other people is usually wasted time: ‘Stop auditioning your complaints and talk to the person who can actually do something about it.’    

The words of Rutger Bregman, from ‘Utopia for Realists’, remind us that telling everyone else how busy we are is not usually very helpful.  ‘In the nineteenth century, it was typical for wealthy people to flatly refuse to roll up their sleeves.  Work was for peasants.  The more someone worked, the poorer they were.  Since then, social mores have flipped.  Nowadays, excessive work and pressure are status symbols.  Moaning about too much work is often just a veiled attempt to come across as important and interesting.’

I finished with the words of the business coach Joseph Pine, who said, ‘The experience of being understood, versus interpreted, is so compelling you can charge admission.’  How often do we take what other people are telling us, adapt it to suit our own world view and then fail to act on the key information that has been provided to us?  Pretty much every day, I imagine.

The second part of the morning was a presentation from Christina Clarke, our Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, which was a very important session to raise awareness about how much work we still have to do to ensure our school community is genuinely as inclusive as we would wish it to be.  When schools first began to have genuinely honest conversations about bullying a few years ago, it was like opening Pandora’s Box.  It felt as if bullying was everywhere and that nothing significant had been done to counter such a culture with any effectiveness.

It looks as though a similar process is taking place now, driven by global movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter, as well as closer to home through websites such as Everyone’s Invited.  It would be easy for us to say that everything is largely all right at Radnor House and we have not really got too much work to do, but such an attitude would be both naïve and irresponsible.  As we were encouraged to reflect, there is a great deal that still needs to be done, inside and outside the classroom, to help us move towards a genuinely inclusive culture here.

Christina highlighted issues around race, LGBTQ+ and consent, which was not always comfortable to hear, but which nevertheless needed to be said in order to create an environment of genuine reflection.  It is too easy for middle-aged white men like me to roll our eyes and say that we no longer understand young people, but this is just a cop-out.  The challenge is to acknowledge shortcomings, both individual and within the organisation, and take effective action to implement change.

Professor John Kotter from Harvard Business School said that leadership involves setting a direction – creating a vision for the future, along with strategies for its realisation; aligning people – communicating the vision and marshalling support; getting people to believe and trust the management, and empowering them with a clear sense of direction, strength and unity; motivating people – energising them through need fulfilment and involvement in the process. 

If it was easy, it wouldn’t be interesting, but there are clearly plenty of challenges for all of us as we look to create the best school we can at Radnor House and, before too long, at Kneller Hall.  The positive feedback from my colleagues last week suggests that they are ready for this as well, which is about as inspiring as it gets on a cold Friday in January!

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