Being a leader can sometimes be a lonely job. When you think about it though, it really ought not to be. Nobody leads in isolation, on their own or in a team of one. We all operate within the world of leadership teams, governing bodies, sub-committees and the like.
Human Beings are sociable creatures and we like to surround ourselves with people who have our back and who complement, challenge and support us. So how do we end up in situations where we sometimes feel so isolated?
Anyone who has had to face up to Ofsted will know exactly what I mean, especially when it’s your name that ends up on the front of the report. Inspection can make or break a headteacher’s career and nobody likes to be told that they are not very good at what they do.
Social media doesn’t help. Despite its name, there’s nothing social (or sociable) about being called out on Twitter, especially by supposed intelligent professionals. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour seems to be on the increase, particularly by those that have never led a school or choose to hide behind their profile. Heads who put themselves out there are easy targets for those with a blunt axe to grind.
Only last month I was told on Twitter by a charming lady who has never met me to sling my hook. She eloquently went on to inform me that I’m petty and punitive and that I’m sucking the integrity out of the system. Quite extraordinary behaviour from a person who could unknowingly be working alongside you in a school, claiming to be a teacher. Too many confuse their so-called right to speak freely with being down right rude.
That said, where social media does have its advantage is when it allows heads to reach out to others – like-minded souls who understand their plight and can relate in some way to their frustrations.
Take a rogue inspection, for example. Although these thankfully are rare, it seems to be happening far too often of late. Ofsted don’t seem to like it when heads reach out and share their concerns because it’s seen as scaremongering.
If your inspection went well, that’s okay, go ahead, share all you want. Ofsted may even give you a retweet. But if it goes pear-shaped, please keep the noise down. Apparently it undermines all the work being done to bust the myths. But all we are doing is being entirely natural and trying to connect up with similar folk in an attempt at changing something.
In his Ted Talk of 2009, Seth Godin talks about this behaviour as being entirely normal, a condition in fact that he actively encourages.
As humans, we have a natural propensity to want to join up, to connect and form tribes with like-minded people to try and change something. The creation of tribes are essential if we are to change anything, both sociologically and metaphorically. So what we should do as leaders is attempt to make connections with people with similar ideas and beliefs (including those on the fringes) and get them to join us.
What is crucial here is that they join you not because you force them to, but because they want to. It’s how movements begin. You only need to look at #WomenEd and the recent #NewVoices to appreciate what can be done. The best MATs understand this.
This is no different to how you create a powerful school. When you want to change anything, especially if it’s the status quo, what you are saying to your team is, ‘This one’s important. We need to organise around this. Who’s in?’ This is when we need to circle our wagons, to create some sort of siege mentality. At this point, the tribe needs to return to base camp and be clear about what it intends to disrupt.
Those of you who have read my book will know all about the importance of creating a base camp. Base camp is a safe place personal to you where you go often, to re-energise, reflect and re-calibrate. Everything that you do as a leader begins and ends here and it comes down to just three things: who you are as a person, what you believe in and the values that bind you.
For any of you that have ever scaled an Everest-type mountain, you will know that you can’t go straight to the top, as tempting as it may be. Instead, you need to climb high and sleep low, returning each night to base camp to rest and recover and acclimatise to the harsh conditions before climbing a bit higher the next day.
I might never have climbed such a mountain before, but as a headteacher I’ve always believed I could move one. A base camp that is forever on the move and adapting to the environment is the key to achieving this.
I had the privilege of speaking about this at the NAHT/ASCL Inspiring Leadership conference at the ICC in Birmingham last month. I mention this for three reasons:
(1) I got to sit in the same seat on the main stage as Humpty Dumpty (ex-Play School presenter, Floella Benjamin placed it there when she spoke the day before);
(2) I got to meet backstage one of my leadership heroes, Michael Fullen, who happened to speak immediately before me (what a great warm-up he was too), and;
(3) I got to hear Professor Steve Peters open the conference with a keynote about the Chimp Paradox.
Steve Peters is an amazing speaker. He is also a great author. His groundbreaking book The Chimp Paradox is essentially a mind-management tool that helps to explain the daily struggle that we all face when dealing with our inner Chimp. Peters has helped all sorts of people deal with their Chimp, including Sky Pro Cycling and Liverpool FC, as well as everyday folk who lead and live busy and stressful lives like you and me.
We all have an inner Chimp and almost every day we do battle to keep it under control.
The good news, is that it can be done, but only if we surround ourselves with the right kind of people and have a clear understanding of who’s in our tribe. We must never leave ourselves vulnerable by allowing ourselves to become isolated.
The Chimp exists in the limbic system of your brain and is your emotional machine. The paradox in the title of the book refers to the fact that the Chimp can be your best friend and worst enemy if you don’t know how to control the pesky little thing.
One of the ways that the book suggests you can do this is by building a support network, a tribe of people, both at home and at work that have your back, that you can rely on, and that are part of your inner circle. They are always welcome in your base camp. He calls this your troop and that if you have the wrong people in it, the results can be disastrous.
Let me tell you this much. Nothing provokes and winds up my irrational little Chimp more than Ofsted. Traffic jams, train delays, Davina McCall and tractors are right up there. They don’t come close though when it comes to Ofsted.
In contrast to the Chimp is the Human, the part of the brain that thinks logically based on facts and the truth. The trouble with Ofsted is that to my wayward Chimp, very little of what Ofsted offers is based on logic or facts. Instead, it comes down to somebody else’s perception of reality – their own feelings and impressions.
In effect, the entire inspection process becomes troop warfare; a meaningless Battle of the Chimps – mine versus the lead inspector.
This is when I’m likely to need a 1:1 therapy session with Prof Peters. If I was lucky enough to find myself sitting on his couch for half an hour this is what he’d tell me:
“Andrew, you need to find your troop, a small band of trustworthy people that will help nurture and develop you, but most importantly will stand by you even when you are under attack. By forming your own troop you’ll be able to answer such questions as ‘Why do I worry so much about what others think?’ and ‘Why do I always feel the need to impress other people all the time?’
A word of warning though. When recruiting your troop, your Chimp will be looking to recruit different people than your Human. In Chimp mode, you will want to be protected by people that share the same emotions and feelings as you. It will choose people based on what they can offer you and keep the troop safe. The Chimp seeks solace in people with superficial qualities such as looks and power.
The Human has a completely different agenda, wanting instead to be surrounded by people of like mind who can offer companionship and friendship. The Human wants people with similar values who are reliable and predictable – soulmates and people with Humanity. Getting the balance right is not easy.
And always remember this: There will be other Chimps out there from different troops that are intent on harming you. You need to learn that opinions from outside your troop are not important. You won’t then give two hoots about Ofsted…
And so it goes on to such a point that I’ve learnt to tame my Chimp and won’t let people steal my happiness.
So to summarise, Peters offers the following exercise to help you create your own troop. Next time you find yourself back at base camp, try to find a few minutes to work through the exercise with your troop.
How to create your troop
1. ESTABLISH WHO’S IN: Think carefully who is really in your troop and why. List members of your troop (both at home and at work) and ensure that the Human has chosen them. If the Chimp has taken control, then redefine.
2. CLARIFY ROLES: Be clear about what each troop member is offering you and what you offer in return. Only ask troop members to fulfill a role that is suitable so spend time with them being clear what each person brings. Be sure to share goals, values and beliefs.
3. INVEST IN THE TROOP: Make time to engage with them meaningfully and refresh if required. Be mindful that if neglected, people may choose to leave. Always keep asking yourself, ‘What have I done today to invest in my troop?’
Get this right, and chances are you’ll find people queueing round the block wanting them to lead you. I certainly will.
(You can learn more about how to control your inner Chimp in Steve Peters’ seminal book The Chimp Paradox. This particular post is based on Chapter 8, The Troop Moon.)