Headship viewed from a distance

Oh, for a sense of perspective during term time! I don’t know about you, but it is only after a few days of downtime during a much-needed holiday – and even then it doesn’t usually come until the final day – that I am able to sift through the daily hullabaloo of school leadership and see from a distance what is important, what is urgent, what can wait and what, quite frankly, I should not be getting involved in.   

The thing about school leadership is that everything appears important and everything seems to require an immediate decision from me. I begin every term in strategic stance, focused on the long view, guided by our School Development Plan and SEF. I quickly descend into short-sighted operational mode – unable to see the wood for the trees and trying, often to the detriment of my health, to solve every problem that is thrown through my office door and which lands on my desk with a thud.

This is not to say that my operational mode is in anyway tainted by a messianic complex. I do not believe, and never have done, that I am indispensable, that I am the drive wheel of my school and without which all progress will grind to a halt. Of course it won’t! But if you give the impression of being a pro-active leader, across everything and everyone, then don’t be surprised if colleagues are happy to ‘leave it with you’ after every meeting or chance conversation in a corridor.

Years ago (and I realise I’m showing my age) I enjoyed watching Crackerjack. At the end of the show a hapless contestant would see how many prizes they could hold whilst being hurled cabbages for every wrong answer they gave. Cabbages came and they had to catch them without dropping the more valuable stuff in their hands.

I’m not doing that any more. If someone wants to throw a cabbage (problem) at me, I shall steel myself and be bold enough to say that I already have my hands full. I shall cross the Rubicon and – I shudder to even say the word – delegate.

Someone once told me that the Head should only do what only the Head can do. I have always scoffed at that maxim, preferring to lead by example: if a toilet has needed unblocking, I’ve done it; if a duty has been missed, I’ve done it; and if a lesson has lacked a teacher I have tried to cover it myself. Again, not in messianic mood – the Head to the rescue – just trying to do what’s best for the school and be a team player.

But, with the luxury of perspective, afforded by some rare downtime right now, I have concluded that if I always pick up the dropped ball because I think no one else will, then no one else ever will.

I have resolved to start the new term looking after myself and limiting the number of cabbages I carry. I need to retain a clear view of the long road ahead. After all, who else is driving?

I will continue to chop vegetables when the chef is off sick, or litter-pick the playground because frankly I enjoy those moments of reflection. But I will try hard to bounce a couple of cabbages back if the thrower appears to be carrying less than me. Investing in staff – empowering them to make a decision, take an action and solve something themselves – should, I hope, show that I trust them and I believe in them, which I do. I would rather a colleague took the initiative and in the end got it slightly wrong than felt unable to tackle any problem and bring them all to me for a decision.

Self-care in leadership is not a self-indulgence. We are not super-human and we have exactly the same needs as everyone else – we need headspace, time to crack on with our own to-do list and, most importantly, an entitlement to the same work-life balance as everyone else. We are paid a leadership salary not simply because we work longer hours than everyone else, or carry more cabbages, but because we have the experience and the expertise to drive the bus and because our neck is on the line if it breaks down. ‘Don’t distract me while I’m driving’ should be a sign I wear around my neck, though I doubt that would be received well in some quarters.    

I am lucky indeed. I have committed and hard-working staff. They show tremendous care for the children and they work hard on their own to-do lists every day. But I must try my hardest to avoid the mantle of ‘officer in charge of decisions’; to be so is to micro-manage staff and to push my own ever-growing to-do list into the late evenings and weekends – and my family does not deserve that. I may be dispensable at work but I still believe I am indispensable at home.  

Here goes. Good luck everyone.

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