The further you are away from something the harder it is to understand what you are observing. That dark spec on the horizon could be many things and as it gets closer you may still find yourself squinting with a perplexed frown.
School leadership is often the fine art of observing at a distance from a place in which you are seen to be the key mover and shaker, a world where you are expected to know everything, have total control and be as skilled as everyone else.
As a school leader you often feel like an astronaut, floating in a vacuum staring at your glorious ‘planet-school’ and wishing that everyone else could see what you see. You observe the passing of time and hope that you have done enough to have set it off, smoothly and in the right direct, so that all is well. This ‘watcher-you’ sees moments where you can only stare in horror as time accelerates and control is wrenched from your grasp. Sometimes in leadership you need to slow down to observe the car crash knowing that you caused the mayhem in the first place. That 80 page school development plan that was impossible to deliver, failed Ofsted inspections, your first tribunal or an angry parent mob using social media to point out why you really are a ‘massive plonker’. These events need to be witnessed from distance and in slow motion as they come inexorably towards you with the weight of a ten ton asteroid. The impact usually leaves a scar of experience which makes you think twice in the future. The experienced head, slowly over the years, usually loses some of the Artic explorer in themselves. Bravery and naivety are a heady combination and in my early days as a head I must have come across as fearless. Time has taught me to be far more cautious.
There are so many ways to watch and feel powerless in school leadership. A consultant once said to me, “Brian, remember everyone around you has silken butterfly wings and your wings are made from the thick hide of a rhinoceros. Remember this most when you are on your back and they have been ripped off.”
Leadership is so often presented as though it is only for the ‘super-humans’ and ‘special ones’; people who don’t need space suits to survive in a hostile environment. The education landscape is full of words like, super, outstanding, world-class, pioneering and exemplary. This is then easily transferred from heroes to villains. The educational language landscape is also smattered with its fair share of bullies, megalomaniacs, tyrants and psychopaths. It seems it is only a matter of time before we hear of the Interstellar Curriculum or the Cosmic Education System either run by martyrs or evil corporate oligarchs. The problem with education is everyone has had one and they don’t hold back when giving you an opinion about it.
School leadership is a place where good never really feels like it is ‘good enough’. The truth is only the naive really believe they are this powerful and omnipresent. You never fully have the kind of super powers others think you have, for good or bad. School leadership is often about a projected version of what you do. From time to time I ask children, “What do you think I do?” A popular reply is, “Shout at naughty children”. I haven’t raised my voice in school for more years than I can remember. My current school will never have heard me raise my voice, and yet that perception still exists.
The reality of school leadership is that the expectations on school leaders are enough to make Wonder Woman wince and Super Man squirm as he steps back, whistles and stares longingly at the sky. This pressure comes from many directions, teachers, support staff, parents, governors, local authorities, central government, and civil servants, as well as from the leaders themselves.
I am forever telling my staff that everyone is a leader, as though they have no choice. You get the teaching job and every Tom and Dick expects you to display the virtues of Gandhi or Mandela. Leadership in schools is an interesting concept. On one level we say it is an art and on the other we say anyone can display it. But can they?
I believe that to do leadership well you need to have a certain mind-set. A selfless streak in which your attitudes, beliefs and aspirations suddenly take a backseat in favour of those of the collective. Sometimes, your ideas shine. You stand tall and feel good as a seed is planted and everyone around you scrambles for the watering can. As a leader it is easy to assume these ideas are the best way forward. Everyone nods and agrees. Leadership is suddenly the easiest thing in the world. On other occasions you just need to point out the best spot to plant the seed and from a distance, simply turn the tap attached to the sprinkler. No one even notices you do it.
The problem is this though. Leadership is about making decisions and many of the choices we have to take are not as simple as we initially think they will be. On too many occasions the choices come with strings, strings coated in radioactive polonium. You start out thinking that you have solved a problem and then it turns out you have created many more and finding the trail back to the original problem is almost impossible.
How many of us who criticise leadership decisions will accept the responsibility and accountability of our decisions as we look up and see the vultures gather in the blinding heat of the desert sun?
There is a perception you know everything when you are the leader. I remember, in my first week of headship, a teacher running in to my office and with a look of horror telling me a child had just thrown up over another child who had then thrown up over their maths books. In barely controlled panic they asked me where the key to the cleaning cupboard was. When I just sat there and said I had, ‘No idea?” you could see the hope that I was going to be a great head teacher, drain from their face. I had failed at the first challenge.
This is the crux of ‘being’ the school leader. How do you lead and turn your vulnerabilities in to strengths?