“Too often we think about outcomes, but the outcomes have already been defined for us.” This was the first statement that got me questioning my practice at the Evolve Alliance Visioning and Leadership Conference. Michael Pain (who looks much younger than I expected) also prompted me to think about the ‘why?’ – but not in the way I expected. He said that the ‘why?’ is noble, but abstract, and that we do our staff and our students a disservice if we leave it abstract. This was picked up beautifully by Jonathan Newport (who thinks he looks older than we would expect) later that day when he asked us to articulate the ‘why?’ through our leadership behaviours.
Thinking about leadership behaviours is the easy part; being brave enough to ‘live’ them is more difficult – but absolutely crucial. If we don’t, we run the risk of the behaviours constraining the ‘why?’ and all of a sudden we are working in silos; suspicious, cynical and self-serving. The very the act of ‘unpacking’ the behaviours (by asking – what is our purpose? how do we behave?) creates buy-in, which creates connections, which creates culture. Jonathan demonstrated the power of culture with a powerful human experiment. He asked us to stand on either side of the room depending on whether we liked or disliked Marmite. Here we are:
I have to admit, I didn’t really get the analogy to start with. I suspected it was just a way of getting us to our feet after a big lunch. But when Jonathan told us that we walked to our positions silently, heads down, like monks and then erupted into chatter when we joined people with whom we had a shared love or hate for Marmite, it made sense. That is the power of culture. Our human instinct is to connect with others who are like-minded. Commonality of moral purpose creates a culture in exactly the same way as does a preference for a yeast-based spread.
Moral purpose was the golden thread running through the day. Michael roused us to be the guardians of childhood and Andy Buck (who looks younger than his career pathway would suggest) reminded us that we are here for all the children, not just the ones in our schools. Jonathan started with ‘why do we exist?’ (an educational, not an existential question) and all three talked passionately about the challenges facing our region, our specific contexts and the power of cross-school collaboration to bring about social change. The collaboration they called for was one which transcends the artificial boundaries created by phases, sectors, school-types, multi-academy trusts and jigsaws.
When he wasn’t tricking us with jigsaws or numbers, Andy challenged us to think about the difference between culture and climate. Something I’d never really considered before, to be honest. I usually use the terms interchangeably. No longer.
This distinction resonated strongly with me. The culture creates the climate. The climate has the power to enable or constrain. Candour about the need to inspire discretionary effort and frankness about the challenge of teacher retention (two crucial issues for school leaders) will only be possible for leadership teams that know the ‘why?’, the ‘what?’ and the ‘how?’
From a very personal perspective, Andy challenged me to reconsider the prejudice I have against MATS. Not everyone is empire-building, so seek out authenticity and be open to the opportunities for shared purpose and expertise. A further challenge came when Andy asked us to consider what success looks like. The lovely Natalie from The Brunts Academy who was sitting next to me made me realise that my natural inclination for the abstract makes me fall prey to the disservice Michael talked about at the start. While I was talking about the intangible, unmeasurable successes, Natalie said, “we need to think about what success looks like for the teacher with 26 lessons a week.” Yes! That is exactly the kind of challenging question that SLTs need to ask if we want to generate emotional investment in a shared vision. And that is exactly why it’s so important to engage with people you meet at a conference.
The Evolve Alliance Trust conference truly challenged me to think about vision and leadership. I learned far more than I can communicate in this short blog. I was forced to consider age-worn truths through new eyes, to turn preconceived ideas back to front and to honestly reflect on my skills as a leader. I came away feeling empowered to be part of a change in education and a movement towards ethical leadership where we define our own outcomes, instead of accepting those defined for us.
You will have noticed, reader, that I have not mentioned Vivienne Porritt. Vivienne was one of the four keynote speakers at the conference. She gave a presentation about her great passion – professional learning and development. Please know that I have not omitted Vivienne as an act of either conscious or unconscious gender bias, I have simply decided to write about what I learned from Vivienne in a separate blog. The topic of professional learning and development, and Vivienne’s very particular style of delivery, requires a dedicated space.