School Leadership is an elephant

Posted by: Joyce Matthews   |   No Comments   |  Posted on: Jun 09, 2014

elephantWhen was the last time you went on holiday? Half-term, Christmas, last summer? Where was it to? Somewhere hot and sunny, or cold and snowy or a lively city break, or maybe just a relaxing countryside retreat? Wherever it was, I bet you knew where you were going before you left the house to get there. You had probably booked the accommodation, and planned your travel, bought any currency you needed and packed the right clothes for what you had planned. Maybe you’d poured over websites or books or brochures before finally choosing where you wanted to go; you probably had a pretty clear picture in your mind of exactly what it would look like.

That’s what most people do when they want to go on a journey – they work out where they are going to and then plan how to get there. It’s so that they know when they have arrived, otherwise you might just stay on that plane, train or automobile and end up somewhere else.

Leading a school is much the same – it’s an exhilarating journey of ups and downs. So how do you plan where you are going in your leadership journey.

Maya Angela can help us out with this one.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

As a leader of people, who wouldn’t want to use that as a destination? Who wouldn’t choose to make people feel they wanted to be on the journey with you? Who wouldn’t want to be remembered ‘as a good boss’ by those you worked with? Who wouldn’t want their staff to say this about them?

“She made us feel valued.”

“He made us feel listened to.”

“She made me feel she really cared about us.”

“He made me feel I could trust him.”

When I asked school staff, what piece of advice they would give future leaders of schools in the book #Unschoolleaders all these types of quotes and more came shining through. It turns out that school staff want school leaders to make them feel valued, listened to, trusted, cared for, inspired, respected, understood, involved, appreciated, happy, important. When you add  all of these sentiments together it looks like school staff want to feel at least safe, and at best inspired and self-fulfilled . So what is the easiest destination to aim for? If you ‘chunk’ it down to its lowest possible denominator, or ‘chunk’ it up to its highest possible nominalization then the destination is ‘safe’. First and foremost, your school staff want to feel safe.

That might seem like a creative equation (trust + listened to + valued + cared for + understood = safe), but it’s pretty logical really; its a theory all teachers know about, and in the hectic business of teaching, might just have forgotten about.

We’ve all heard about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – that after our basic physiological needs are met, our next basic need is safety. It turns out that that’s what most school staff feel they need from their school leader – first and foremost, to be made to feel safe, to know that they’ve ‘got your back’. We all know we haven’t evolved that much from prehistoric times and we still have those caveman instincts and thoughts because part of our brain still operates like its millions of years old – whether in our caves, hunting for animals or in a classroom or in the playground, we still have these ‘ fight or flight’ reactions, we still have that innate sense that we need to seek safety, that there could be danger all around us. So it’s only natural that we should want our school leader to make us feel safe. Once they’ve done that leaders can then think about moving up Maslow’s hierarchy to help staff feel a sense of belonging, building their self-esteem towards self-actualization. But until all members of school staff feel ‘safe’,  then is it worth worrying about the rest of that pyramid?

So what does the end feel like?  Safe is the first and most important destination for any leadership journey – because that’s what the people you will lead are trying to tell you. What type of person would choose to ignore it? It’s all too easy to blame outside influences for making your staff feel ‘unsafe’ – Ofsted, Gove, government policies, the rise of technology in schools, angry parents, uneven paths and dark car parks – but this is all about you – a leader of people and it’s about what you can do to take responsibility and to make all your staff feel they want to give their best to you and your pupils. It’s not about taking on the government or examination bodies or waging unwinnable wars – it’s about taking small steps, literally; it’s about your behaviours, what you say and what you do to get the best from your staff.

You know the old joke – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

#Unschoolleaders is about de-mystifying leadership in schools, one ‘bite’ at a time; identifying and developing behaviours in a way that makes them stick. Knowledge is no longer enough – it’s time for you to walk that talk.

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