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Taking off the armour

I have been listening to the last couple of podcasts from Brene Brown, on Armoured vs Daring Leadership (2 parts). They are amazing. I’ve actually listened to both episodes twice because they are so full of fantastic insights and observations. As I was listening, I was just thinking about my 17 years as a leader in the education sector, and whether I’ve seen more armoured or daring leadership on display, and also what kind of a leader I’ve been. It seems a bit ironic to me that in a sector that has learning at its core, the attribute of being ‘learners, not knowers’, which is a characteristic of daring leaders, can be elusive. I was pondering on why this is. At a time when many in the educational world are wondering what the future of our education system should be after the ‘hard reset’ which has been coronavirus, Brene’s podcast is timely.

I would highly recommend that you listen to the podcasts.

By way of a commentary, and using lots of Brene’s own words and phrases, I offer these thoughts on the relevance of her message for educational leadership here in England right now.

A key feature of the daring kind of leadership is ‘wholeheartedness’, where our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are integrated, and we ‘bring our whole selves to work’. How often are we ‘wholehearted’ as school leaders? Armoured leaders believe that by severing the heart, people are more productive and easier to manage.

We move at such a fast pace in education, and the drivers tend to be test results and OFSTED inspections. This pushes us towards leading from the head, the cold, hard facts and figures, and not the heart.

Another feature of armoured leadership is ‘being a knower and being right’, as opposed to ‘being a learner and getting it right’. I’ve been guilty of being a ‘knower’ as much as the next person, in a bid to protect myself, come out on top and size up well in the perceptions of others. But I’ve learnt how much more powerful it is to be a learner and to be curious. Brene says, ‘the most transformational leaders don’t have answers, they have questions’. Think of leadership team meetings you’ve been in. How often have you been tasked with asking questions around a problem, rather than providing quick answers, and competing for validation?

Brene talks a lot about shame within organisations. Sometimes shaming is overt and obvious, but sometimes it is ‘shame within the walls’: people talking behind each other’s backs, finger-pointing and favouritism. This kind of shame forces people to think in terms of rankings – how do they measure up to others in the organisation? I think it’s worth all school leaders undertaking a ‘shame audit’ and evaluating the nature of their organisational culture. The current crisis of recruitment and retention in education is not served well by toxicity in the culture of some schools.

Another aspect of armoured leadership is fostering a ‘scarcity-driven culture’ – never enough time, resources etc, and an underlying fear of losing what we have. This is exhausting for staff, and reduces creative thinking and innovation. I have seen this as a recurring theme in schools, where leaders are afraid – of test results going down, OFSTED gradings going down and their school being a less attractive proposition than the one down the road. Things get even worse when the exhaustion is seen as a ‘badge of honour’. Being the last person on site each evening becomes a status symbol. I’ve been there, and done that as a headteacher. Now I realise what a damaging message I was sending out. How much better would it be if we could model that ‘we are enough’. If we could respect boundaries and self-care and value mistakes made and learned from?

Another dichotomy is the armoured ‘fitting in’ culture, versus the daring ‘belonging’ culture. If staff are trying to fit in, diversity and inclusion may be professed but are unlikely to be practiced. People try and become who they think you need them to be. Wouldn’t it be so much better if staff could just be themselves, and bring their diversity, creativity and different viewpoints to work? Schools up and down the country are espousing ‘black lives matter’, LGBTQ+ rights and so on, but are their cultures really set up to embrace diversity?

Do we lead reactively, or proactively and strategically? If we are reactive, we may hear leaders saying things like ‘get this fixed now’, whereas if we are proactive, we will see leaders being thoughtful and spending time defining problems as a team before coming to agreed solutions. As leaders in education, can we give ourselves permission to take our time, and empower our staff to find their own solutions to problems?

Do we skill our leaders up to deal with hard conversations? How many leaders give feedback in line with their values, in a kind and honest way, within a culture of trust and respect? So often it seems that leaders are either afraid to give a difficult message or go to the other extreme and deliver it in a brutal fashion. Surely we need to spend more time as a profession, helping leaders to do this better.

For me, the most important message from Brene Brown is that armoured leadership vs daring leadership is a continuum, not a checklist. We are never completely one or the other. We slide about on that continuum. But let’s remember the times when we have been daring. Remote learning? School leaders guided their schools through one of the biggest changes the education system has ever seen. Leaders who want to be more daring should reflect on that success, think about how they did it, and then do more of that.

At the national level, thinking needs to be done on how the system can nurture daring leaders, and not encourage them to put their armour on. Individual leaders in schools and trusts need to look at the culture they are creating and be brave enough to take the armour off.

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