Principal’s Prizegiving Speech – July 2022
Good afternoon, everyone.
Just to check that your brains have not gone into standby mode, I have a quick test for you. I’d like you to turn to the person next to you, please. While you’re there, say something nice to them. It doesn’t matter what, just pay them a compliment, remind them of when they made you feel good. Even if you have never met them, I’m sure you can think of something.
Now I’d like you to say the days of the week to your new friend, in order, starting with Monday…Hopefully, that went well and everyone was able to do it. Now I’d like you to do it again, but this time you need to put the days into alphabetical order, starting with Friday…
I think you’ll find the correct answer is…Friday, Monday, Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, Tuesday, Wednesday…Not quite so easy.
You might not think so, but you have all just been involved in some leadership training, which is great news because, and this is the first piece of wisdom I want to share with you today: everyone in this marquee this afternoon can be a leader. Leading is not just reserved for the people in suits who come up to the microphone, it is a distributed quality that we all possess – but too often we think we don’t have it and that is what holds us back. We let fear get in the way of our abilities.
When things are not familiar to us, we often find them difficult, which is a bit of a nuisance really, because our lives are made up of new and unfamiliar situations. Just as we think we have mastered something, let’s say living through a global pandemic, we find ourselves watching a war we did not think could ever happen and have to come to terms with rapidly rising prices, transport chaos and the sense that we are losing control of what we thought we could master.
A man called Guy Claxton is an expert on education. He has written a lot of books about it and given a lot of talks. Much of what we are trying to do here at Radnor House, and much of what we are planning for Kneller Hall when we move there, has its foundations in many of Claxton’s ideas, not least when he says: ‘Learning is the need to develop the ability to face difficulty, complexity and uncertainty calmly, confidently and capably.’ And this learning, of course, does not just take place at school, it takes place throughout our lives.
I recently read a book called ‘The Art of Fairness’ by David Bodanis, in which the author makes the point that it has almost become the default setting to accept that only strong, aggressive people can lead us out of crisis, when in fact the opposite is usually true and these aggressive leaders simply make everything worse.
Bodanis says that terrible people often succeed, but decent people also often make it to the top, even in hard, competitive fields, and they are the people who can help shift matters for the better. It is just often not noticed because more monstrous egos grab our attention.
Being polite and fair and gentle is all very good, but it seems like a description of a dull person who would be no good in a crisis. Bodanis says this is a false assumption. Although being gentle in all circumstances could indeed mean you get walked over, fairness does not need to mean being meek. On the contrary, when applied well, it can crush most bullying types.
He concludes that there are plenty of terrible people in the world, as there always have been, but they are in a minority. Far more are neutral, swayed by whatever appears successful. When systems are set up to make life harder for the worst sort – and what they hate most of all is seeing their unscrupulous or ineffective actions revealed – then everything positive can pour out: the transmission of accurate information; extra gratitude to wield; fresh sources of creativity; enthusiastic alliances.
Earlier this year, there was a story on the news about the discovery of a ship called Endurance that had been discovered at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean over a hundred years after it had sunk. The ship had been captained by a man called Ernest Shackleton, who was leading an expedition to cross Antarctica by sea and over the ice, as part of the generation of explorers who set out to conquer new worlds in the early part of the last century.
You may be more familiar with the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, who led an expedition a few years earlier to try to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott and his men were beaten to the Pole by a team from Norway led by Roald Amundsen. For many years, Scott was considered a hero, despite his failure, and Shackleton was largely forgotten, despite his bravery, but recent research has led to a change of opinion about the two men.
When Shackleton advertised in The Times for men to join him in crossing Antarctica, he didn’t say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five years’ experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ He said: ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’
The only people who applied for the job were those who read it and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. Their ability to survive was strong, which is one of the key reasons why no one died on the expedition when it all went wrong and the Endurance sank after being crushed by pack ice. Shackleton combined meaningful challenge with a concern for his followers, but for Scott the only goal that counted was finishing.
Scott was rigid and formal. For him the prize was paramount and his military training dictated that some loss of life was inevitable. He was dour, bullying and controlling; Shackleton was warm, humorous and egalitarian. Scott tried to orchestrate every movement of his men; Shackleton gave his men responsibility and some measure of independence. Scott was secretive and untrusting; Shackleton talked openly and frankly with the men about all aspects of the work. Scott put his team at risk to achieve his goals; Shackleton valued his men’s lives above all else. All of Scott’s men died; all of Shackleton’s men survived.
As well as leading by action, we can also lead with words. You may be familiar with the wisdom of Siddhartha Gautama, more usually just known as Buddha. He once said, ‘Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.’
So, the second piece of wisdom to take away from what I say this afternoon is a plea from me to you to always be as nice, and as kind, as you can be to other people, because I think we still have quite a lot of work to do – as individuals, collectively as a school community, and then out into the wider world – to ensure that kindness and compassion triumph over meanness and selfishness.
One of the cornerstones of Dukes Education is to lead with heart, to try to look after each other, care for each other and make decisions based on the interests of others as much as ourselves. You could call it compassionate leadership and it can be a highly effective way to operate if you do it properly. Too often, people think that leadership is about authority and power, when it is much more often about influence and persuasion. No one I’ve ever met works better if they are frightened or if they are shouted at. As the poet Maya Angelou said, ‘I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
This would therefore seem to be a good time to say goodbye, thank you and good luck to the staff who have moved on this year or who will be leaving us over the summer. From our support staff, who do so much to support us all, as the title implies: Fiona Innes, our compliance officer; Krissie West and Imogen Bond from the library; Alicia Williams-Smith and Anna Brenard from the reception team; Sonia Ratnan, our art technician; Linda Frost, our HR officer; Ansell Brahim, who managed our ICT network; Lauren Leyva Alcocer from admissions and marketing; and science technician Aleck Heetun.
From our coaching staff: Melanie Court-Smith and Josef Lackner.
From the teaching staff: Seema Obhrai (Maths); Georgie Kennedy (Geography); Bénédicte Bouchard (Modern Foreign Languages); Hale Own (Art); Guler Dunne (Psychology); Gemma Tate (Drama); Tom Tovell (Computer Science); Kylie Emerton (Maths); Becci Pratt (PE & Games); Joel Wardle (English).
Please join me in a round of applause for all these colleagues.
As you may know, I try to read a lot of books and I try to learn from what I read, writing things down that I find interesting. But there are plenty of other ways to learn, so I will round off my message this afternoon with some wise words from a television hero of mine called Ted Lasso. If you know him, you will be familiar with his work. If you have never heard of him, perhaps this might inspire you to find out more – though I do have to give a warning to parents that the show has some adult themes and some very bad language, so it is certainly not suitable for everyone.
Ted Lasso is a lower-league American football coach – their version of football, not ours – who is brought over by the fictional Richmond FC to manage them in the Premier League. He is initially set up to fail by the club’s new owner because she wants to get back at her ex-husband, who used to own the club and who keeps turning up to watch the matches.
The new owner hires Ted to make sure the club gets relegated, but gradually people come to see the great qualities that Ted’s homespun wisdom bring, from simply writing the word ‘Believe’ all over the changing room to saying things like, ‘Taking on a challenge is like riding a horse: if you are comfortable doing it, you are probably not doing it right.’
In my favourite episode, Ted is challenged by the club’s former owner to a game of darts and accepts the offer of a bet to make it more interesting. If the owner wins, he can pick the team for the last two matches of the season, but if Ted wins then the owner must promise not to attend any more matches. After a few throws, Ted is a long way behind, and it looks like he really does not know how to play the game. But he still has a chance to win, if he can complete a three-dart checkout for 170 – two treble twenties and a bullseye. No one thinks he has a chance, of course.
But Ted then gives one of the speeches that makes this such a captivating series, whether you like football or not. He says, ‘Guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman and it was painted on the wall there. It said: ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ And I liked that. So, I get back in my car and I’m driving to work, and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me; not a single one of them were curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So, they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realised that their underestimating me…who I was had nothing to do with it. Because, if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions, you know? Questions like: ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’ To which I would’ve answered: ‘Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father, from age ten till I was sixteen, when he passed away.’
At exactly the right moments in the monologue, Ted throws his three darts. The first two are perfect trebles and the last is the bullseye to win the match, which he releases just after he utters the unusual phrase ‘barbecue sauce’, which he later explains, ‘Whether you are winning or losing, keep a positive mindset and remember that darts gotta come from the heart. If you're about to take a winning shot, think of something that makes you smile. Mine is good old barbecue sauce.’
When people used to ask me what I do, I said that I was the head of a school. But then someone pointed out that that is just a title – indeed, it is a title that can change – but it doesn’t explain what I actually do. So I thought about it more carefully and I said that I thought I was someone whose job it was to try to bring out the best in everyone around me, not just the children but also the adults, though this is not unique to being a head teacher, of course. Anyone can do it, if they believe they can be leaders – and I’ve already told you that you can all be leaders.
In another episode of the series, Ted is being interviewed by a journalist. He is asked how important it is for him to win at all costs, because this must surely be the hallmark of a good football manager. Ted pauses for a few seconds and then he replies, ‘You know what, it’s not about winning and losing; it’s about helping everyone to become the best version of themselves they can be.’ And that is why Ted Lasso is one of my heroes.
In summary, then: Be curious, not judgemental. It’s not rocket science. Work hard and be kind. Be a leader whenever you can, which is more often than you think. Always try to bring out the best in other people through your words and your actions. Life can be very complicated, but being a good person doesn’t need to be. Thank you.