I think the best television series ever made was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, with Martin Sheen playing US president Jed Bartlet, surrounded by a fiercely loyal team of advisers who were passionate about their work and the difference it could make to the American people. Even though the first series was made more than 20 years ago, it is still highly relevant as a study of American politics, as well as being first-class entertainment. The episode called Two Cathedrals, which is the finale to the second season, is the best hour of television drama I have ever seen.
When he was in office, Barack Obama once said, ‘Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it.’ It is not dissimilar in my job, but the difference of working in a much smaller environment is that too much arrives on my desk more quickly than it would in a larger organisation. I hope my colleagues do not call me ‘Mr Teflon’ behind my back, but I have got much better over the years at making sure that all other avenues are exhausted before I need to intervene.
When I first became a deputy head back in 2002, I often used to invite people with a problem to ‘leave it with me’, effectively taking the monkey off their back and putting it on mine. This played to my controlling tendencies and allowed me to believe the solution would be better because I had devised it. However, it also meant that the queue outside my office continued to grow because my colleagues knew they could sign off on their responsibilities relatively easily by passing them on to me.
It took about three years for my damascene moment, with the realisation that I was so weighed down with everyone else’s burdens that I was not working with any sort of effectiveness. I therefore adopted a new strategy of pushing back and insisting that colleagues take their problems with them at the end of meetings, work on their own strategies for finding solutions and come back to me only if they were completely stuck or if it was clear they had somehow made the situation worse.
This new approach was much more effective, both for my workload and sanity, but also for those I was working with, who were increasingly empowered to make decisions and trusted to get on with it. I think I have recommended it before, but Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s short book called The One Minute Manager gives an excellent set of suggestions for hands-off, trusting leadership. And while I was looking it up, I noticed a link to Johnson’s own book about change management, called Who Moved My Cheese?, which is a great read, and which will instantly remind you of so many people you know!
By leaving the monkeys on other people’s backs, I enjoyed the second half of my six-year deputy headship far more than the first, but I still did not learn the lesson clearly enough because I repeated the loop when I became a head in 2008 and spent the first few years trying to solve all the problems, even the ones that other people could easily sort out themselves. Twelve years later, you will need to ask my colleagues whether I’m a control freak or have a non-stick desk – it’s probably a bit of both – but I see one of my key roles as helping to empower everyone who works at Radnor House to become highly effective leaders as well as first-class managers.
I am also committed to a relentless drive for further improvements in the school, both the brilliant basics and the magical moments, to make sure we genuinely match the verdict of those who visit us to make assessments of our efficacy. As Jed Bartlet used to say after he and his team had averted another catastrophe or changed the course of history, ‘What’s next?’