Who takes care of the leaders? We all do!

How we can support leaders in their agonising and complex role

Executive Director of System Leadership at Ambition Institute, Formerly National Schools Commissioner

Last week I was invited to attend a workshop that was delivered by a team from Bloomberg who specialise in talent development. Bloomberg are one of the fantastic partners that Ambition Institute work with. The session focus was on resilience. It was one of the most thoughtful conversations I have experienced for a long time and was entirely relevant to the experience many leaders in our sector are currently facing. 

We talked about what sits at the heart of feeling uneasy and that it is a product of both uncertainty and anxiety about the future. We talked about what it means to be resilient and how resilience flows from four sources. Accepting that things are different and changed. Adapting to a new reality even if it is a temporary one. Drawing on internal and external resources and energy and finally, finding the silver linings amidst the challenge.

Maintaining a sense of perspective

Whilst the session was personally helpful, it made me reflect on how I could apply this learning to the work that I do with academy trust leaders. I would suggest there are five realities that might help leaders to maintain a sense of perspective.

  1. Your role as a leader is not to try and fix everything. This may well go against everything that you believe in but when we are dealing with something so new and where the answers are hard to define, be realistic about what you can solve
  2. Be very aware of your own triggers. What makes you react positively or negatively to a situation. Do you behave differently or make less positive decisions when you are tired? Avoid writing the email tonight that will sound better in the morning!
  3. Admit that you do not have the answers and don’t promise what you cannot deliver.
  4. Provide the best communication you are capable of. Simple messages delivered in beautiful prose that contain the one thing you want people to “hear”
  5. Be the inclusive leader you always have been. Be flexible and adaptable but above all else, listen with empathy. You cannot be sure why it is that a colleague wants to talk to you and what it is that they want from you. They might just want you to stay silent. They might want you to tell them what to do. They might just want you to say it is OK to cry

Supporting leaders now and post lockdown

So how do we turn these five realities into something transparent and practical?

Simon Sinek has written a book called “Leaders eat Last”. It describes the core principle of servant leadership and what we are seeing more than ever is school leaders putting the needs of their communities first. Of course, this is the right thing to do but more than ever we need those who are taking tough decisions to take care of themselves. So how do we ensure that we get to the end of this period and still have leaders who are healthy and feeling well?

For those of us who are playing a role where we are supporting leaders there are three contributions we can make.

The first contribution is to encourage leaders to reflect on how they feel about the way things are unfolding. Not feeling about government policy but how they feel inside. How are they differentiating between those challenges that they have a degree of control over as opposed to the ones that they have no means of influencing? For example, I have no say in how long the government intends to expect me to work from home. I do have a say in how I prioritise my time and the order in which I do things when I am working. The role of trustees and governors in ensuring sure that their leaders are feeling well has never been more important. Talking about what it means to be resilient is part of a supportive discussion.

The second contribution is to support leaders when they are taking decisions that impact on their families and communities. There is no correct answer to many of the current challenges that is waiting to be discovered at the end of a rainbow. Leaders have to work that out for themselves. Our role is to ask good questions. Find examples from the different networks we can share so that others might benefit from the wider thinking.

It is this point about collaboration that leads me to the third way in which we can provide support. More than ever we need leaders to think big. To think system as well as school and trust. Think about how we work with other people and how we share the lessons we have learned. The lessons that we won’t repeat as well as those we will. How will we re-imagine the way that education is delivered in the schools we are responsible for and how we can join up the leadership brain that supports our communities. Owning our future direction is a powerful antidote to the feeling that circumstances beyond our control, own today.

Social media can be tribal. You are either in this group or another. We need leaders to work as a single collegiate force for good because I can promise you that there is not one school anywhere in the country who has the right answer. What we have is a group of professionals, ably supported by their volunteer governors, doing their best for their communities. What we see across the country is the power of leadership and the benefit of collaboration. Being isolated is a tough place to be even when things are going well. We need our school leaders more than ever. We have to take care of them in order for them to look after their children and colleagues.

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