Courageous leadership – of the right kind

It takes a courageous leader to break the spiral, change the direction, and build a different mindset and culture. It takes deliberate action, appropriate to the situation and the personalities involved.

Here, I offer five different stories to shine light on your path ahead. I’m waving a torch around the dark in the hopes that you might see something that guides you on your way, or encourages you to move ahead.

The stories are:

  1. The Garden
  2. The Burning House
  3. the Chasm
  4. The Building Site
  5. The Role Play

The Garden

When the situation is not acute, change can be carried out gradually. When deciding the fruit and vegetables I want to harvest from my garden in the Autumn, I first plan where I will plant, and then start digging and pulling out the weeds, in the Spring. For the situation in an organisation such as a school, the steps can be abstracted as:

  1. Survey the situation
  2. Build trust and expectations
  3. Paint the Vision
  4. Set Goals and Targets
  5. Find Allies for the Process
  6. Be a Role Model

The Burning House

Sometimes a more abrupt strategy is needed. When the place is on fire, there is no time to sit down and have a chat about it. Listen to your head and heart, “We have to get out of here”, make a decision “That way!” and act upon it “Come on everyone, hurry!”. Reflect afterwards. “Did we get everyone out?”

The new Head of a struggling local school – where I had the honour of carrying out some coaching – required the teachers to ‘adopt a positive mindset or leave’. She gave each teacher the time to express their hopes and fears about working at her school, and if their hopes outweighed their fears she encouraged them to remain at the school to share their positive energy with the students (who badly needed it). Otherwise she encouraged the teachers to leave and seek employment elsewhere. Half of the staff transferred to other schools.

After three years with the invigorated and new staff, the students were performing so well that the school ranked in the top five in the area, having been in the bottom five for years.

This head teacher had a powerful presence and was a delight to work with because you always knew that she would expect the best from you. When my colleague and I were invited to present the teachers with the opportunity of being coached, she gave us thirty minutes to speak. We were used to taking two hours, with a discussion, coaching demonstration etc etc.. Giving us thirty minutes made us excel at presenting what we had to offer.


The Chasm

Surveying the Current Situation at your school and comparing with Painting the Vision, you might discover that there is an overwhelming difference between them. What you see in real life and what you imagine could be possible, seem to be from different Universes.

At my first teaching employment, way back in 1978 in the UK, I encountered an impossible divide between what I wanted to do as a teacher, and what I was expected to do by the school leaders. As a young man in my twenties, I found it easy to connect and form working relationships with the teen-aged pupils. Yes, they were often cheeky and sometimes rough; but I could joke with them and there was mutual respect. Some of the older teachers had greater problems and got into slanging matches with the more verbal, less self-restrained students.

The way the school dealt with insubordination was through corporal punishment – they beat the pupils with a stick.

I was expected to witness such a beating. I refused, claiming some higher moral ground that it was unethical blah, blah, blah, which got me nowhere.

I decided to leave, and set up my own ‘school’. I would take on paying students, and provide a safe space for those who had been expelled.

When the gap between where you are and where you want to be is wide, you have to take a leap of faith. You cannot cross a chasm in tiny steps.

  • What if you cannot see the other side?
  • What will it feel like after you have taken the leap, and have not landed (or crashed)?
  • What if you crash? or land ‘hard’ on the other side?
  • What if you try to take tiny steps anyway?

Later, I moved to Sweden. I tried being employed as a teacher, but that glass slipper did not fit either of my big feet. I started an English training company. I had no idea if it would succeed, but I knew that it had to. I had a young family to provide for.

The above questions raced through my mind all day, every day. It was a leap of faith to start a business. I held onto my faith in myself that I knew enough, or could learn what I needed. I held onto the faith that there were enough clients who would pay enough to cover my wages and who would be happy enough to come back for more.

  • What makes you want to succeed in changing the culture of your school?
  • How much faith do you have in your ability to succeed?
  • How much faith do you have in your ability to learn what you need?

The Building Site

I have been watching a row of new houses being built near where I live. They began by digging the foundations, clearing away mud and clay, and drilling through granite rock. Then came cranes and scaffolding. I’m not a building expert, but I could clearly see that they first brought in the big heavy stuff, the walls and roof; then later they put in the details, the doors and windows.

You could never build a house using these chunky instructions, but a simplistic building guide would be:

  • Foundations
  • Big things
  • Small details

How does that guide your courageous leadership in changing the culture at your school?


The Role Play

An international company was experiencing push-back from senior employees who were resentful of newer employees being paid more for the same job. The Leadership Team brought in actors to play the role of employee and manager so the company policy could be demonstrated and reinforced.

The managers watched, eyes wide open, as the actors deftly demonstrated what the Leadership Team wanted the managers to say and do. The actors read their lines with no fear of actual resentment from their fellow actors. The managers were painfully aware that they had a tough message to sell their more senior employees, “Get used to it or get out!”

The learning was not about the harshness of the message, but how to deal with the fear of people’s reactions to delivering the message.

The managers played out role plays opposite actors as their employees (with a script). The managers struggled to find the right words to convey the tough news – that there would be no pay-rises for senior staff – without triggering the actor into a raging temper or a flood of tears.

Are there tough messages that you must deliver, and hesitate to deliver for fear of the reactions you might get? Could you engage Actors to play the role of Teacher and Student or Principal and Teacher so that you can practice before the real event? What would you have them say?


General Strategy

Whichever fears you need to change…

  • the students’ fears, “I can’t learn anything”
  • the teachers’ fears, “The students aren’t going to learn anything”
  • the school leaders’ fears, “The teachers don’t believe in the students”

… the strategy is the same:

  • Dig into that fear, gently but firmly
  • Use a Sports analogy. What happens if the team believes “We can’t win”? What happens if they believe “We can win”?
  • Use a Business analogy. What if the Sales team believes “Nobody will buy these services”? What happens if they believe “People will buy these services”?
  • Get Permission to explore. Without permission, there can be no exploration
  • Use your Curiosity. Look for answers that enlighten the person you are speaking with
  • Use your Authority. School leaders have the right to ask Big Questions. So do Teachers. So do Students and their Parents
  • Build trust. And remember that it is reflexive – you get as much as you give
  • Ask just enough questions. Ask, Ask, Ask. (and then ask a little more, gently). Remember to ask for permission again from time to time
  • Ask the right kind of questions. Use plenty of open-ended questions. Avoid using leading questions. Occasionally use closed questions when you need to check that you understand what’s being said
  • Explore hopes and fears, expose fears to the light, engage in the Higher Dream that we are all here to learn and thrive.