Learning to Lead

Last summer, I embarked on a European train expedition spanning 11 countries in 8 weeks with my husband and two children. We all stopped on our backpacks along with an adventurous spirit, our inter-rail train passes, and expert knowledge of Trip Advisor. Reactions from family and friends ranged from, ‘You must be mad!’ to ‘Wow, what an adventure!’ We were very much in the latter camp, though by the time we arrived to Bulgaria during week 7, I was somewhat leaning towards the former. However, our train journey holiday provided many opportunities for for quiet reflection time and I would settle into my seat embracing the monotony of the journey, enjoying the views from the window and my solitary wonderings. The 13 hour journey from Budapest to Transylvania, for example, provided a spectacular opportunity to indulge my reflective thinking, allowing the stress and pressure from the academic year to unravel slowly with every new train track and field we passed. My young travel companions provided me with gleeful and regular updates on the state of the train’s toilets from about hour six onwards, but other than that, I was largely undisturbed. My thoughts tended to focus on my role as a senior leader in a school and a tremendous sense of guilt (did I do enough?) and responsibility (how can we grow and improve for next year?) flooded my mind. Mentally, I dusted over the year’s events, considering the effectiveness of certain initiatives, my reactions to individual circumstances, and my emotional impulses. Throughout the journey, my musing always brought me back to the same question: what kind of a leader have I become, and how do I become the leader that I really want to be? 

As a true believer of constructivism, I look at my 17 years in education—13 years of which have been at a senior leadership leadership levels—and I consider how have my experiences made me the leader and person that I am today. Luckily for me, the early years of my classroom practice were under the mentorship and supervision of several outstanding leaders, all differing in style and approach.  While there were differences, there were commonalities throughout. For one, they were all experts in their field of pedagogy, which gave them credibility in my eyes. I knew that anything that was suggested or implemented by them at staff meetings, training days, appraisals, feedback sessions and so on was all based on their tried and tested experience. That filled me with trust, respect and an open-mind to give their strategies my time, focus and energy. 

Added to this, was their relentless commitment to the children and community in which they served, evidenced by high expectations, admirable work ethic, precise organisation, clear communication, and the dogged determination not to let anything go under the radar, no matter how small. Their professionalism was also spot on—not one sour word about a colleague was uttered in my presence, no matter how challenging or tiring the situation may have been for them or for the school. Their respectful, energetic and positive demeanour was always evident and I now know from experience that this level of polish is no easy feat. After all, quality of the leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves. 

What about the less effective leadership examples I have experienced, and how can I learn from those? Being visible around school is a key aspect for leadership, especially in an industry which is all about people, both of the little and large variety. Leaders who prioritise emails, action plans and other administrative tasks over classroom practice risk losing touch with the learning and teaching very quickly, which makes it so difficult to drive initiatives for improvement. Furthermore, having a presence on the playground, greeting the students and parents at the start of the day, having ‘downtime’ conversations at lunch with teachers, and observing the classroom transitions to specialist areas also provide valuable feedback on the state of play in any school. Being visible around school also means you have to put in the hours without the children on site—leaders who consistently arrive later and go home earlier than teachers are always going to be noticed and frowned upon, regardless of family situation or personal circumstance. To unite the team, there has to be a sense of ‘we’re in it together,’ and perceived work ethic is a vital component to this. 

Another leadership red flag is raised by those who do not ask questions about the children, the teachers, the parents, the standards of current practice, and the school’s history. This sniffs to me of arrogance and ignorance: those who do not take time to understand or observe the unique features of the people and processes in their organization surely cannot be relied upon to bring forth positive change. A failure to address underperformance is another aspect of weak leadership and the consequences of this are far-reaching for the overall culture of the school: collaborations become strained, frustrations rise and respect for leadership diminishes. In these instances, the culture can begin to eat itself from within and once people’s wellbeing is affected, they tend bring each other down. It is an uphill battle from there onwards, so nipping issues in the bud are always preferable but the confrontation involved in this can be daunting, which is why things can fester.  

Empowerment is a leadership approach which has impacted me most positively and when this has been absent from the workplace, I noticed many detrimental affects to  productivity, input and thinking. Having a leader recognise talent, provide additional responsibilities and coach from the sidelines is vital to encourage the development of one’s own style of leadership. Luckily for me, I have been empowered by several leaders who have developed my confidence, deepened my knowledge, broadened my skills-set and challenged my thinking. Unfortunately, I have also experienced those who micro-manage and in these instances, I noted with interest how this impacted my internal capacities: creative thinking reduced, decision-making inhibited, confidence lowered, loyalties started to wane. Someone wise once said to me, ‘Sometimes, people just have to hold their nose and jump in’, Someone else  once said, ‘Sometimes, you just have to put people in the saddle.’ Different metaphors, same notion: true leaders find opportunities for empowerment and are not shy to stand out of the spotlight to allow others to flourish. After all, you are only as good as the team around you and it is amazing what people can accomplish if they believe in themselves. 

One thing I do know for sure, is that in different contexts, we are different leaders and must differentiate our approach and style to suit the needs of the organization and its people. There cannot be an IKEA-style approach to leading teams (i.e. same box, different location); there must be acute awareness of everyone’s skills and an open-minded approach to know how to best unleash their potential. As I get older and wiser (hopefully!) I believe that leadership is all about cultivating healthy and positive relationships with the people you work with and lead. Developing a positive culture of trust, respect, and collaboration are so important to the team’s success and these days I do my best to channel my inner Jacinda Ardern, employing empathy and compassion as my leadership style and approach. I make it a point to say thank you as much as humanly possible, to provide time to listen, to choose to see the best in every employee, to emphasise all the good work happening day in day out, from the small actions to the big events. 

It is my belief that leaders have a moral obligation to ensure that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and this is particularly essential for those who stand in front of children each day. I also remember those words of Sheryl Sandberg who encouraged women to ‘Lean In’ at the boardroom, explaining that it is a privilege to have a seat at that table and as such, we have a responsibility to use our voices to represent those we lead. Integrity, fairness, morality and humility are all dispositions that I have tried to employ this year at senior leadership meetings and I am positive that for those you lead, they will get a sense that you have their back. Learning how to lean in diplomatically, professionally, and to manage frustrations is a whole skills-set in itself and true leaders know when to back out with grace if the fight is lost. It is something that I continue to work on.

Looking back at my European train adventure, it really was the trip of a lifetime and collectively our family grew in so many ways—new foods were sampled, confidences increased, personal boundaries re-established, comfort zones pushed, bravery challenged through new experiences, and so forth. Times of professional reflection were necessary to strip down the leadership guise and to reassemble for next year, making intentional plans to re-build and improve my style and approach. Next summer, we aim to do something similarly adventurous, but with a camper van instead— maybe, with a few more clothing options and a whole new set of leadership experiences to ponder. 

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