Irish poet, David Whyte understands fully what life and work are all about. He says;
“We must have a relationship with work that is larger than any job description we are given. As real work, like a real person, grows and changes and surprises us, asking us constantly for recommitment.”
If you are a school leader reading this, stop now and think deeply about his words. What is it that David Whyte is saying about the relationship that you need to have with your work?
I believe that he is pointing to key essential truths about life and leadership and the deeply personal dynamic that is so often at play, between the individual and their role, but rarely gets spoken about. A dynamic that calls for the individual (particularly if they are in a leadership position) to engage in a constant conversation with their work, about its true nature and what it is asking of them.
Having used this quote with a number of senior leadership teams and heard their deeply personal reflections on it, I have identified five key things that I believe every school leader should know about the role and what is means for their own personal/professional development…
1. Vulnerability will be a constant companion
Because the school leadership role is full of constant ‘challenges and surprises’ which so often catch you off guard, learning to accept your own feelings of vulnerability are an essential part of growing into the role.
Too many school leaders make the mistake of believing that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and therefore never develop the necessary depth of character to work honestly with their own emotions.
However, those that do, soon come to realise that when they engage with their own vulnerability, they develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be courageous in the true sense of the word.
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”
2. You must be prepared to dig deep
You don’t really need me to tell you this, you know it already, but I’ll say it anyway! This role that you have taken on, this role that requires you to be a champion for every child in your school, requires heaps of energy!
If that energy is to be sustained then it is essential that you are prepared to dig deep. Because chances are you will face people and situations that will take you to places inside of yourself that you have never been to before. If you are to grow from these challenges, you have to be prepared to look deep inside and be willing to learn the lessons that inevitably criticism, push-back and conflicts will teach you about yourself.
3. Recognise that you are a ‘work’ in progress
Just as your school is developing and growing you are too! There is a parallel process taking place. You need to be aware of this. Just as your school changes from one day to the next, the same is true for you.
If you are alert to this, you will find it easier to adapt and change. You will be aware enough not to get stuck in old behaviours. You will seek help and advice when you notice that it is you that needs to change in order to achieve the outcome/s you desire.
4. You must keep a strong connection to your ‘WHY’
It can be all too easy when the deadlines are mounting up and you feel as though you are forever chasing your tale, to lose sight of the reasons why you first came into teaching.
Left unchecked, feelings of disillusionment can slowly creep in and before you know it, the joy, the love, the passion you once felt for the role has disappeared.
Which is one of the reasons why Whyte states that work constantly asks us to recommit. He is saying if we don’t consciously engage in a process that connects us back to our ‘Why’, not only do we suffer, but our work suffers too.
5. Successful leadership begins with leadership of self
For your job description to have any real meaning, you have to be prepared, as stated earlier, to engage in a dialogue with yourself about what the role is truly asking of you. You need to be prepared to reflect on such questions as:
– Who am I as a leader and as a person?
– How do I show up ….? (Particularly when challenged and under stress?)
– Do I know what my drivers are and how they impact my behaviours?
– Do I know what it takes for me to show up as my true authentic self?
I know …. these are not your standard school improvement questions! Yet they are the type of questions that when answered, provide the scaffolding around which school leaders can successfully build their vision and maintain a positive relationship with the work of school leadership.
Exploring these Crucial Questions
On the 19th October 2017, we hosted Headteachers & School Leaders from across the country for a new type of School Leadership conference; an “Education for the Soul” Conference designed to help leaders answer some of these crucial questions.
Our hope was to offer an opportunity for school leaders to explore and discuss what matters most to them (their values, hopes and passion) and locate ways of leading that are aligned to who they are, their goals, their vision and above all, don’t require them to sacrifice their own well-being.
It is fair to say, the day was a very special one indeed, and for me personally, it was deeply humbling to see so many school leaders and education professionals who were prepared to:
– Take a risk
– Ask of themselves challenging questions
– Think about school leadership differently
– Go on a deeper learning journey with themselves and others
It was so wonderful to watch these individuals drop their leadership masks and come together, in service of one another and in service of shared hopes, dreams and ambitions for our children and our schools.
As a result, the conference became a place where discussions about the relationship between well-being and school leadership could be discussed openly and candidly, and real solutions could be found.
Above all, the day confirmed to me three vital key lessons that I’ve learnt from my time working with School Leaders….