How often do you top up your reservoir?
‘Think of a reservoir high in the mountains of central Wales. At one end of the long submerged valley is a dam with the technology to control the flow of the water. The rest of the lake is the most evocative and powerful combination of natural features – rock, trees and water … All around the lake are small rivers and streams flowing down from the surrounding hills. In many ways I see this scene as a metaphor for the inner-life of transformational leaders.
Each working day school leaders have to draw on their personal reservoir – on some days a steady flow will suffice, on other days the floodgates have to be open as energy, compassion, creativity, optimism, courage and hope are called on. The deeper the reservoir, the more can be given, but eventually even the deepest reservoir will begin to run low. A period of drought can transform a rich reserve into something arid and barren, incapable of nurturing and sustaining growth … ‘
from Rethinking Educational Leadership, West-Burnham, 2009
I was working with a headteacher. ‘My resilience is low’ she said. ‘I know I haven’t been looking after myself as well as I should, but there’s just been so much on’. I have worked with this headteacher regularly over the past year. At the heart of all she does are the needs of her pupils and staff. Perhaps that’s part of the difficulty: they’re in her heart rather than in her head. We have talked about her taking time out – and to be fair, she has put aside some time to work with her coach (not myself). In many cases, though, time out of school has been with like-minded colleagues, most of whom ‘know’ that at this stage of the term, it’s ‘normal’ to be flat on the floor with almost no energy to get through the last 2 weeks. What a year it’s been: at least 2 Ofsted frameworks; changes to the National Curriculum; the sudden and unexpected introduction of free school meals for children in Key Stage 1 (and who saw that one coming?); changes to the special educational needs code of practice; changes to assessment; reduction in staffing in other agencies leading to increased pressure on schools; and increased pressure on school budgets with more to come. The pressure inevitably builds on the headteacher, particularly in primary schools, where the head may be the only person not in front of a class.
For possibly the past 5 years, at this time of year, headteachers I’ve spoken to have said ‘I’ve never known a year like it; it’s just been so full on’. How many of them, I wonder, have increased their investment in themselves?
Last week, at the University of Worcester Festival of Leadership Learning we listened to Floyd Woodrow talk about elite leadership. Given the audience where ‘elite’ often means ‘privileged’ and ‘better resourced’ I wondered how everyone would react. What I took from his explanation of the term, however, is that we can all work to reach elite status, given motivation, drive and practice. The elite perform exceptionally because they practise. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers tells a similar story. Those at the top of their game, whether in the field of sport, music, or battle: all practice. Gladwell talks about practising for 10,000 hours. Leaders are no different. Floyd talked about training your mind: drilling it, to prepare for the unexpected. If you want to move from the transactional to the transformational as a leader, you need to be prepared to invest in yourself.
Headteachers have it tough. High accountability, high profile, working in a system that expects them to fix society, where (as we discussed afterwards) if you get it wrong, you can quickly forfeit your career. Floyd held the attention of 50 headteachers for 2 hours. In the world he referred to, it isn’t just your career you forfeit if you get it wrong, it’s your life – and potentially that of many others. It doesn’t get tougher than that.
He talked a lot about building resilience. In a small group conversation afterwards we confronted the reality of what that means. It means practice. Practice is what builds new neural pathways; it’s what moves us from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.
When I was asked to run a 2-hour session which would result in headteachers recognising when they are stressed and doing something about it, I politely (I hope) pointed out that it takes more than 2 hours to effect behavioural change. You cannot build resilience with the ‘sheep-dip’ approach. It takes time, commitment and practice. Next term I shall be working with a headteacher and his senior leaders on developing emotional resilience for school leadership. It’s a year-long programme. As a leader of learning, he recognises that embedding learning takes time. As leaders, we need to listen and attend to our own needs. The alternative is to project them on to others so that we can take care of them, and risk infantilising our colleagues, and exhausting ourselves at the same time.
I challenge you to finish next school year with something in reserve. To do that, you need to plan and practise. Do something each week which will support your resilience. Resilience is intensely personal. Only you know for sure what supports and undermines your resilience, so do more of the former and less of the latter. If only it were that simple… You have to be prepared to invest in yourself. More about that anon. For now, consider some of these behaviours that might help you in building resilience.