On the morning of July the 7th 2005 I was sat in a meeting with an assistant head teacher from the local East End secondary school. Her phone went and she apologised as she said she needed to take it. As she listened I saw her face change to one of shock and confusion.
“I’ll come straight back…”
She had just been told that bombs had exploded on the Underground and there was a possibility their school hall would be needed as an overflow from The Royal London Hospital which was moments away. We both fell silent and we could hear the wail of a hundred sirens. I quickly looked up the BBC website and it still said that there had been a possible electrical failure on the London Underground.
I asked her again, as she got her coat, “Bombs, On the Tube?”
“Yes. Aldgate East?” And she left.
My wife worked at Transport for London. We were both proud owners of the new Oyster card, which seemingly allowed us the freedom of the city, and I knew at that moment my wife was traveling to the hospital for a check-up for our newly born daughter. I tried phoning her but the phone went to answer message. I remember standing in my office alone and thinking, I have to tell the staff even as I was wrestling with my inner emotions.
I was suddenly overcome, I didn’t know where my wife and child were and I knew that at that time in the morning many of my staff’s children and loved ones would be on the Circle Line. I breathed in and momentarily lost control but regained composure as I breathed out. I walked out of my office into the bright lights of the schools corridor and found my deputy. I told her what I knew and asked her to take a whole school assembly so that I could speak to all the staff.
By the time I got to the staffroom there was a sense of unease. One or two people had heard but were too shocked to mention it. No matter how hard I try I can’t remember what I said next. All I remember (and I still get emotional thinking about it) were the faces. I said something about using phones to get hold of people but it was the sea of faces and uncertainty that made me feel so useless. The same useless I felt when my daughter was born. I was a passenger in other people’s lives even as I felt my own spiralling out of my control. Initially, I saw this as a weakness. I now know that the strong leader never hides their emotions. It is only through being yourself that you become a true leader of people, knowing your outer edges and not fearing them when they come hurtling towards you. This held true recently when I had to tell a member of staff that her best friend had been murdered that morning. When I had to tell the Year 5 teacher that a child in their class had just found out her mother had been killed. Nothing can prepare you for these moments and it is only through an authentic understanding of yourself and your human traits that you can get through these moments. It is only through acknowledging your own fears and uncertainty that you can find some strength in leading through these moments. At the end of that school day I walked home with nine members of staff, we walked through three Boroughs and it took us more than three hours. I was determined to be the last one to get home. All the time I selfishly thought about my wife and daughter.
The danger is you can’t be a walking soap opera. When I became an Acting Head I used to tread the corridors and tell staff what a ‘mad day’ it had been. Handing over my issues to others so they knew just how hard my job was. I could not think of a worse approach now. It was the author and public speaker Jim Lawless who brought this to my attention:
“Brian, when you at the front telling everyone how tough things are going to be and how hard you are finding it they are looking for your strength not your fears. When the ship is sinking it is the Captain the sailors look to.”
As much as I need to be open and honest about my ability to be the leader; part of this is not burdening others with issues that I am dealing with and they have little control over. There is a fine line between being an authentic leader or a sinking ship dragging others to the depths with you. I have always struggled with being honest alongside the images I have of the leader. It seems as though school leaders are sometimes raised upon pedestals of rock only to find them crumble into sand. That HARD leader quality that it seems like so many want from school leaders (Usually when a school is at its lowest point). Leadership that mimics dictators and steam rollers over anyone who dares to disagree with it. I have seen so many leaders who seemed to have hearts of steel and stares that could cut diamonds. They hide their emotions so deep down that you would be hard pressed to find them in the deepest darkest trenches of the ocean. These people seem to have an impenetrable barrier around them. I have seen many like this. They seem to soak up the most difficult situations; glide through conflicts and bounce troubles out the door. The problem is, when their armour is finally breached it usually shatters and it is almost impossible to rebuild again. When the emotions do come out they are wild and helpless. Genuine feelings and emotions do not necessarily mean ‘weaknesses’. I often tell my SLT it is harder to do the kindest acts publically than the toughest acts in private. The messages we want to send are often clouded by the message we think others want to hear. Therefore we let our instincts get pushed aside. An authentic leader should never ignore their feelings, especially when faced with difficulty.
The closer you are to something the harder it is to cloak your true feelings. Much in school leadership passes by so close you can feel the force of it beneath your skin. Take the time to learn from it as it approaches; do not be afraid even when it hurtles towards you so fast it seems it may shatter you. In fact move towards it and allow yourself to be who you really are. Face it true to yourself. That dark spec on the horizon may be many things but if you know who you are then you don’t need super powers.