Bold Leadership - Part Two

Why we need to learn the power of ‘and'

Co-Director, Big Education

I wasn’t expecting to write a part 2 to this blog. But it has been a funny couple of weeks.

This blog is about boldness, why it matters, and what is stopping it from happening in education. If we are to build the positives from this pandemic, the time is now to engage in expansive and challenging conversations. It is the time to reflect on our experiences and allow ourselves to rethink, to redesign. It is time to be bold in our own thinking, and confident in sharing that with others.

Creating a culture where it is ok to speak truth to power

Boldness, then, is about saying what we really think. I was working with a Senior Leadership team this week and focusing on exactly this – the complex dynamic of creating a culture where it is ok to speak truth to power, disagree, give one another feedback and find a way of figuring out what to do, together. We used Kim Scott’s radical candour model. I love this as it so clearly shows us the power of language and the use of a key word: ‘and’. We can challenge directly AND care personally. This is what she calls radical candour. 

We can equate ‘challenging directly’ with boldness – it means sharing our honest opinions, thoughts and ideas. Too often this does not happen, and the reason for that is entirely because the context does not make it safe to do so. Why? In a nutshell, not enough caring personally. 

Shame, comparison and disengagement - the English school system

To share our personal information and thoughts publicly (be that in a team, school, article or talk) is to take a risk. It is an act of vulnerability as it opens us up. In contrast to the rather British ‘let’s not go there’, it is precisely to ‘go there’ (as my brilliant friend and colleague Karen Giles would say). 

Brene Brown describes a culture of scarcity – one which is typified by 3 things; shame, comparison and disengagement. As I re-read this this week, I was overwhelmed by the truth of how rife those things are in the English education system. Schools are ranked, leaders are shamed, teachers disengage and do what they are told or leave. 

For those of us committed to a change agenda and fiercely at odds with much of the status quo (which, I think, is actually the largely silent majority), this presents a real challenge. We are all under the cosh of this infrastructure, we are all judged, we are all in the grip of a system where it is more ‘career smart’ to go and work in a previously already effective school in an area of higher socioeconomic status. To speak out in this context is hard enough. And then there is twitter…

'It really struck me how normalised I have become to this level of sneering'

This came to life starkly for us this week. My co-director, Peter Hyman, appeared on this radio 4 programme exploring the future of learning. Hosted by Sangita Myska, it showcased a radical school approach from Holland followed by a panel discussion of some of the themes. So far, so good. But then, after airing, Sangita tweeted;

I responded to her and we shared an exchange – Sangita’s role as the host was to remain impartial and also challenge the ideas and views of the contributors in a balanced way – which I think she did. But it really struck me how normalised I have become to the level of sneering (for that is the word for it) that is the comeback to anyone talking about any form of learning that explores a more expansive and future focused agenda. Her shock at the level of discourse was a welcome wake up from what we have grown accustomed to. The sneering is what Kim Scott would name as obnoxious aggression – i.e. high direct challenge without high caring personally. This type of response can erode boldness, make people less likely to speak out. It contributes to a culture of polarisation, taking sides and does nothing to support a mature and open debate.

'It makes for a win/lose mentality where beating your opponent’s argument becomes the most important thing'

So, without getting into who said or did what, I would like to take the chance to again call out this behaviour – and elevate our understanding through the lens of this model – the Thomas and Kilmann conflict instrument. This fabulous tool gives us a way to conceptualise what happens when we disagree, when there is a point of conflict, and gives us another powerful ‘and’; How much do we keep asserting our own point of view, and how cooperative are we? This results in these 5 positions – all of which are useful in different contexts.

 

So what does this have to do with boldness. Well, being bold is to keep asserting what you think- I encouraged leaders in my NAHT keynote to use this moment of disruption to get back in touch with what it really is that you think and what matters. But the overwhelming culture of competing when we disagree (I hear you, BUT I think this) powerfully erodes our confidence and willingness to assert our ideas, especially when the ‘but’ comes from those in power or is associated with shaming (sneering being, I think, a good proxy for this).

It makes for a win/lose mentality where beating your opponent’s argument becomes the most important thing. The double whammy of a seeming inability for many to adopt a collaborative position in Thomas and Kilmann (I think x and you think y. That’s interesting. What shall we do about it?), combined with not much ‘caring personally’ from the Kim Scott model makes for a toxic, aggressive and reductive debate. 

Surely we have to be able to do better. 

'Even writing this feels like a risk'

I try really hard to practice what I preach. Integrity and authenticity are ideals I strive for. So when I started my talk last week, I led with being vulnerable. I changed my first slide from an image of a superhero-esqe couple of power leaders. I replaced it with a screen shot of this schoolsweek article. I have spent 9 years involved in designing and trying to make a reality of The International Academy of Greenwich – a dream which was ended by the ultimate failure of the DfE to secure the school a permanent home. The announcement of the closure decision was one of the hardest things I have ever done. So I do believe that we have to model our willingness to try new things and acknowledge when things go wrong. 

Even writing this feels a risk. Will they come at me for calling out this behaviour? Well, maybe. But I stand by my record. Not one to wear my achievements on my sleeve or on banners outside the school, I am proud to have served as a head teacher for THIRTEEN years, taking on a previously hugely underachieving school in a highly complex and materially deprived community, have 4 ofsted reports with my name on that you can read here and here, and then having amalgamating two schools, here, here. I remain a publicly accountable professional, accounting officer of our MAT, responsible for the education of several thousand children. I am a coach, a trainer and a positive supporter. I am proud beyond words of leaders and heads I have helped along the way, to find their voice, their boldness. Our Big Leadership Adventure programme is the culmination of everything I believe in. I am also a mother and a woman, and I think these parts of me are relevant. 

We all need to speak up. We all need to call out sneering, competitive and shaming behaviour when we see it. The future needs our best ideas and thinking to be shared, interrogated, merged, and actualised. Make sure your hat is in the ring.  

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