Respect goes a long way and yet some people seem to find it is so easy to critique the faults of others. I dread this time of year because you are usually a couple of SATs questions away from notching up your stress levels to Def Con One. Losing the mental threads that keep you confident and in control… there is a looming fear as a leader that states if someone can see uncertainty in your eyes – it’s all over. I have found that when your stress is in full-tension-test-mode then those harsh words and echoing tuts can furiously hack away at your resolve like a knife to a tendon. Uncertainty, at these times, are usually the least of your worries.
The problem with stress in the school leader role is there’s a cumulative effect in play. In isolation many of the problems are manageable but let one catch up with another and very soon you can end up with a dirty snowball of problems careering down the hill with nothing but destructive intent. The end is almost always messy. Stress is relative and until we manage to understand it most of us just ignorantly get on with treading water until it is too late and we have no energy left to get out.
Sometimes the stress I feel is so much I go in to auto pilot mode. I just cope and move on- keep my focus in the middle distance and ignore the gathering shadows in my periphery. I have seen this in many heads and some of us are very good at it. In fact, sometimes I think I am better in auto pilot mode than strategic mode. In auto pilot I can deal with each problem with a promise and an affirmation that all will be fine and our destination will be met. I’ll run the gauntlet and hope I make it to the end before the monsters in the shadows get me. Making decisions under fire can, for some of us, make us feel like gods… look at me, chaos reigns and here I am ‘owning it’ – mighty in my majestic swagger and steely resolve. I believe that what I am doing is pure leadership gold and will solve all the problems the school has… The reality is – I have become deluded. I once heard a great Mark E Smith (Lead singer of The Fall) interview in which he talked about taking drugs and drinking all night and writing the greatest song of all time. A couple of days later he woke up read what he had written… it was incomprehensible babble (and from Mark E Smith that is one hell of a claim!). The truth is you need to be tuned in to your school. The best leaders need to have a clear frequency that is free from static and feedback… the problem is, when times are tough, white noise, distortion and vibration rule. Those shadows on the fringe not only promise chaos – they block rational thought and calm decision making. They warp your perspective until you find that you no longer have your usual assurance or natural demeanor. You become someone – or something – else and this is also never good.
There is a great line in Catch 22:
You know the difference between me and you? Me: Happy, happy, happy, dead. You: Worry, worry, worry, dead.”
That’s the issue with school leadership – you can’t do it well when you are riddled with worry and doubt.
There is a kind of leadership snobbery prevalent within education – a mystery that sets the school leader as some sort of dealer in heroic miracles on one level or charlatan hawking calamity on another, and often the line between the two is very fine indeed. Anyone who has been a leader for a period of time realizes that any form of successful leadership is not about them – it is about relationships and understanding how they fit together to do the best job possible. The leader tries to balance a multitude of roles and relationships so that they function within the school system as well as they can.
But, for some leaders it is all about living within the Castle of Me. That they have to prove that they, and they alone, have all the keys needed to solve every problem. They can take an almost morbid joy when they fail and wallow in the misery they have caused themselves (and others) in the process. Or, blame the failure on the fact that others are not capable of delivering ‘their’ vision. It’s self-obsessed and ultimately destructive. What is scary is up until recently this type of leader was often touted as what was needed in schools who were failing.
Going back to Mark E Smith again one of my favorite Fall songs is Dr Buck’s Letter, in which towards the end Mr Smith reads a magazine article about DJ Pete Tong quoting life essentials such as sunglasses and his Amex card, after laughing himself through the list he says, “I was in the realm of the essences of Tong!”.
You can’t become fixated with your leadership within a school setting – even more so when under pressure. You need to know how you empower others to act and how you get them to ensure that changes become embedded over time. Quick-Fix Charlies dictating without flexibility or any real understanding of the nuances within a school where they no longer teach, mark or plan is usually a recipe for disaster in my book. It’s pot luck leadership and usually very short term at best. It’s taken me time but moving away from the Castle of Me and setting up camp outside has helped me to lead a school more openly and flexibly. You need time in a school to do this though and that is why cut-throat ‘sort this in a year’ approaches have never excited me. I have walked away from them because the solution is always going to be temporary. This is not easy though and in truth it has taken me more years than it should have. It brings its own problems as well- often around people seeing you as indecisive, or blasé. Some members of staff want a leader to tell them what to do, they thrive on it and for them it works… It’s been a constant struggle for me to communicate that I am making decisions (though not the one you want) and I do care (Though clearly not as much as you). Rarely is a decision needed that is so vital and so immediate that without it the school falls to pieces. Usually schools break apart due to lots of issues building up over time and everyone either too scared to tackle them or professionally ignoring them hoping someone else will deal with them. And then along comes the super head and we all look to the heavens for the miracle- and sometimes there is one. Though more often things change and everyone goes, ‘Wow, its great here now!’, and then 18 months later it’s all a mess again – and said messiah is nowhere to be seen- or doing the same in a school fifteen minutes away.
We really do need to have a conversation about leadership in schools that is not about heroes and heroines but ordinary people struggling through what can be a really difficult job by finding ways to keep doing it and loving it in the process. We need role models that are not made from granite and knighted at every turn of a page. We need leaders who keep getting back up and are given the time, respect and space to lead their communities without fear of failure over one year but belief that over time they will create a lasting legacy.