Recently I spoke at a coaching conference on the topic of “Leading from Within.” I chose to speak on this topic, because now, perhaps more than ever, I have seen an increasing need for school leaders to pay attention to the inner work of school leadership and for them to recognise that it is just as important as the outer work.
In a climate in which they are continually compared to others or given labels that suggest they are ‘less than’, school leaders need to be aware of the corrosive nature of these external narratives and the degree to which they deride personal narratives of self-worth and value.
Sometimes it is hard for school leaders to see the extent to which external narratives have shaped their own inner landscape and have caused them to doubt their own unique strengths, capabilities and contributions that they make to the education system. So, during my talk, I chose to illustrate this point with a story: The story of ‘The Cracked Pot’
As you read through this story ask yourself:
– Which aspects of this story resonate with me and why?
– How can this story help me to reshape my inner story?
– Who/where are the water carriers in my life? What role do they play?
– If there are no water carriers in my life, what can I do to rectify this?
– How can a ‘water carrier’ help me to change/edit my story as a school leader?
The Cracked Pot
There once lived a water carrier. Every morning, as soon as the sun rose, she walked from her home to collect water in two earthen pots that hung from a long pole that she carried across her shoulders. One pot was perfectly formed, the other, although the same shape and size as its counterpart, had a crack in its side. So, whenever they returned to the water carrier’s house it was only ever half full.
For years, the water carrier repeated her journey to and from her house collecting water from the river. As the years passed by, the cracked pot created a story in its head about its level of worthiness and inability to properly perform the job for which it had been created. Eventually, the pain and shame that it felt about its own perceived imperfections, became too much for it to bear. So, one day as the water carrier knelt beside the river and began her usual task of filling the pots with water, the cracked pot found its voice and said;
“I am so sorry. For years and years, I have watched you fill me with water and I can only imagine what a fruitless task it must be for you. As whenever we return to home, I am only ever half full. While in comparison, the other pot is perfect, rarely does it lose a drop of water on our long walk back to our home, but me, I am far from perfect. This crack in my side, not only does it cause me so much hurt and shame, but it must also cause you to want to get rid of me. Surely, I am only making this long, arduous job that you do each day, that much more difficult? I can understand if you are thinking of getting rid of me and replacing me with another perfectly formed pot.”
The water carrier listened to these words with both care and compassion. The cracked pot’s story of unworthiness and shame was not one that she recognised. For this was not what she thought of the pot. She knew about the crack, but did not see it as an imperfection, or as something that made it less worthy than the other pot that hung from her shoulder.
Gently she turned to the pot and said, “On our return walk home, I want you to look up and to the side of you. For too long, it would seem you have been looking down, comparing yourself to others and not noticing how you and the crack that you have in your side has brought untold beauty into my life”
Puzzled, the Cracked pot wondered what on-earth her words meant. She seemed to be suggesting that its story of lack, unworthiness and shame, was in some way faulty. As to how this could be, it could not comprehend.
However, the Cracked Pot trusted the water carrier. It occurred to it that in all the time that it had journeyed with her, she had never said a harsh word, never scorned or ridiculed it, but had always shown a sense of gratefulness and care when filling it with water.
So, on the return journey it heeded the water carrier’s words. It looked up and it looked out. In its former depressed state, it had not noticed that along the path that they travelled there was a dazzling array of beauty, colour and life. The water carrier in her wisdom, knowing of the crack in the pot’s side, had sprinkled seeds along the path. These seeds were duly watered every day as a result of the crack in the pot’s side and the path that had once been barren and devoid of life was now resplendent with an array of beautiful wild flowers.
Now, the cracked pot understood. Now the cracked pot began to see itself in a new light. Now it understood that indeed it had been telling itself a faulty story. If its experience of being a ‘cracked pot’ was going to change then it would have to change the story that it was telling itself.
The author and storyteller, Geoff Mead puts it like this;
“We need to consider how our lives are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are here for, because knowing our stories is an essential prerequisite to claiming our personal authority and to making our unique and authentic contribution as leaders”
No matter what Education policy makers might say it is my belief that the majority of school leaders want to make a ‘unique and authentic contribution’ to their schools and the communities they serve. There can be no doubt that this is a task that day by day, seems to get harder and harder.
Policy and decision makers tend to say focus on the outer work and it will get better, it will get easier. It doesn’t! It is a focus on the inner work that enables school leaders to find the strength, courage and wisdom to attend to the outer work in ways that are sustainable, holistic and deeply aligned to their sense of self-worth and vocation.
Over the last few years, there have been more than a few harmful narratives and stories that have seeped their way into our education system. Our leaders now find themselves operating in a profession in which they’re increasingly expected to see pupils as data, their schools as businesses & fellow school leaders as rivals and competitors.
Contrary to popular belief, these narratives are not supportive of our leaders and neither do they ensure the best outcomes for our children. Rather, they often only serve to demoralise, alienate & intensify the emotional challenges of school leadership.
That’s why on the 18th October 2018, we hosted Headteachers & School Leaders from across the country for our “Education for the Soul” 2018 Conference designed to help leaders to explore and discuss what matters most to them (their values, hopes and passion) and locate ways of leading that are aligned to themselves and their hope for their schools.
It is fair to say, the day was a very special one and a huge success with so many school leaders and education professionals joining us for this. 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.
Following the success of the conference, I’m delighted to say that in October 2020, we will once again host Headteachers & School Leaders for this special conference.
“Education for the Soul” 2020 will feature a new selection of expert speakers and workshop hosts, who will be sharing their insights into how school leaders can look after their own well-being, get the most out of those they lead and deliver the best outcomes for their pupils.
The conference will aim to build on the outcomes of our previous “Education for the Soul” conferences and seek to explore how school leaders and teachers can learn to lead with integrity, depth and purpose.
As part of this, we will look into how individuals can stay connected to their “why” and their deepest values. Above all, “Education for the Soul” 2020 will aim to help school leaders and teachers:
– Foster a deep sense of vocation and purpose amongst all staff
– Increase their understanding of the relationship between school development and personal development
– Keep hope, joy passion, commitment and creativity at the heart of their school and relationships with self and others