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Go, tell it on the mountain!

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It can’t have escaped your notice that earlier this week it was World Storytelling Day. As a leader, the only story you need to be telling is the one about you – who you are, what you stand for and why your school is the best party in town.

Telling powerful stories about the culture you have created as a headteacher is what makes you stand out as a truly great leader. Storytelling helps the best leaders nail their colours to the mast for all to see by bringing their values to life through metaphor and motto. Leaders that harness this power create a ‘legend’, a lasting legacy that lives on long after they’ve gone.

As with all good stories, it’s the way you tell them that matters. Let’s face it, as teachers, we all know how powerful a good story can be to a captivated audience. Telling stories to children is what we do really well.

As leaders, we need to learn how to translate this skill to adults. The principles aren’t really that much different. (Other than the small fact that those that are listening can just get up and leave.)

The best heads know that a compelling story well-told creates cultural glue. It’s about forming emotive connections that bind people together with a common language and sense of purpose. It’s what motivates people and gets them out of bed in the morning.

So important is the art of storytelling, that in James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’, he argues that leaders even need to go so far as to invent their own language. In so doing, this then allows them to “sing the world into existence” because they’ve created their own vocabulary.

Seth Godin suggests a different art-form (in his book, ‘Tribes: We need you to lead us’). Rather than sing or tell stories, we must instead get our brushes out and ‘paint a picture of the future’ on our blank canvas.

To ensure your narrative comes to life, your values and beliefs become the star of the story – centre-stage characters that drive the plot. You need to embellish and develop people’s understanding of what drives these key characters; how they got there, where they came from and where they are going.

As with all good books, we need to fall in love with the people that are in them. If we don’t care much for the main characters and can’t associate ourselves with them, we don’t care much for the story. The same goes with your core ideology – your vision, values and reason for being.

As James Kerr says:

“Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organising thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.”

I believe that the best leaders all share a number of traits that make them become master storytellers. You need to try and exhibit them often, and as with anything worth doing well, you need to practise them often too. These character traits include: energising, discovering, imagining, celebrating, failing, questioning and dismantling. (You can read more about them in my book).

What is crucial as a leader is that you model these frequently, whilst at the same time giving out permissions to others to do the same.

For example, staff need to know that they have permission (or not) to fail often, or question often. They need to know the extent to which they can dismantle what’s not working in their classroom or the degree to which they can discover (and try out) new things without coming to you first.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, by giving these permissions out openly to all and as soon as you can, as a leader you are unwittingly defining the culture of the school without anyone necessarily knowing it.

In a recent article in The New York Times, research showed that when transforming challenging schools in Chicago, those traits mentioned above are commonplace. Although not identical to the ones I suggest, they certainly aren’t dissimilar:

“When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits that they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination.”

What’s really interesting is that the key to embedding systemic change is not to do with what you do financially, structurally or administratively. It’s not about having the best ideas or always being right or being the most clever. Instead, it’s about how you engage, motivate and galvanise the people around you.

It’s about how well you tell your story.

“We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.”

Let’s be crystal clear about this. The stories that you tell about the culture that you’ve created start and end with you. It’s your name above the door: You set the weather. The team that you create are only as good as the culture that allows them to thrive (or not).

The New York Times sum it up perfectly:

“Principals set the culture by their very behaviour – the message is the person.”

Those seven traits mentioned above aren’t the complete picture. There is an eighth and it’s the one that I think is most important when creating a culture built to last: Articulating.

Being able to articulate your vision effectively can be a daunting and challenging prospect, whether it be in the form of a story, painting or song. It’s not good enough simply to tell or instruct people. Sending out an email, death by PowerPoint or a glossy laminated infographic won’t engage anyone.

I always remember a senior leader whom I first worked with as a new head. She couldn’t see why things weren’t being done. “I’ve sent them all a group email dozens of time,” she’d say. “I’ve told them in briefing over and over again. I don’t get what bit of it they don’t understand!” She really was getting very exasperated.

The answer of course was in the messaging, the storytelling. There was no connection, no buy-in and therefore a complete lack of emotional attachment from the staff. Shouting louder and stamping your feet simply won’t wash.

The wisest leaders understand then that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. As well as being visceral in their storytelling, they are also marketing and communication experts. They do this often, not by accident, but methodically and persistently.

They are highly proactive at continually seeking openings to tell their story at every opportunity, often by stealth, to anyone prepared (and sometimes not) to listen.

The best leaders sit people down and empower them and build consensus by bringing their vision to life in a way that is compelling and entirely believable. They are dogged and unwavering in equal measure.

Their story becomes their mantra.

And always remember this: If you don’t tell the story, who will? Seize the moment.

For no other reason then than it being international storytelling week, to close, here is one of my favourite stories about the importance of leadership, one that you might like to tell any budding future leader. Just promise me you won’t send them a memo.

It’s called ‘The Feast’ and it goes like this:

After yet another disastrous project that resulted in higher taxes and more hardship imposed on the people, a wise man let it be known at court that he was a master chef. One day he announced a feast at which he would prepare the most delicious new food. The King and all of his advisers were invited and couldn’t wait to attend.

When the various dignitaries arrived, full of anticipation, the food was presented in great style. But it proved to be disgusting.

“What is this abominable, poisonous mess you are asking us to eat?” cried the outraged guests. “You’re making us all sick!”

“This is my latest recipe,” explained the chef. “I made it up as I went along, putting in at random anything that came to hand without any rhyme or reason. It seemed like a good idea.”

“That’s absurd!” the King and all his advisors shouted at once. “That’s no way to prepare a meal.”

“I agree,” said the wise one before making a hasty exit. “But I thought it would be interesting, nonetheless, to try out a recipe based on your way of doing things.”

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Hoops, hoops and more hoops

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We’ve had the inspectors in. The new term was barely three hours old and we got the call. So in they came – days two and three – and they were all over us like a rash.

I’m still scratching, hoping the itch will go away. Those of you who have been through Ofsted know only too well how it can get right under your skin to the point that it feels tattooed on your soul. Perhaps a tad melodramatic, but you’ll know what I mean.

Let me tell you this. Nothing quite gets the blood boiling and stress levels bulging like an inspection, no matter how well prepared or experienced you are. I’m convinced that there’s only so much a person can take during their career. I guess that when I feel I no longer have the fight, it’ll be time to quit.

It’ll be Ofsted that finishes me off. Not the lack of funding, testing or recruitment crises (you know where you are with these and are in control). Thankfully there’s still fire in the belly, so it’ll be a while before I throw in the towel.

The inspection took place at our first ever sponsored academy. The stakes were therefore high. The school was in deep special measures a few years ago. But we’ve worked tirelessly to bring about change in a period of great uncertainty.

We’ve ditched grading our SEF, have no previous inspection report to gone on, we’ve got no two similar years of assessment data to compare, we are skint, have no idea what expected progress looks like and we didn’t have a clue how the inspection was going to go. Even as late as early afternoon on day two. I obviously can’t share anything with you about the outcome at the moment, but the fact that I’m writing this means I came through relatively unscathed. I’m not so sure I can say the same about the teachers who on the day performed stirringly.

I did something strange though on the eve of the inspection. I read my book. In much the same way as hearing your own voice on record, or seeing yourself on video, I’ve stayed away from it since publication. But I did dip into it. Not very far mind as I only read the opening chapter or so. Strange as it may seem, it actually gave me a sense of calm. It reminded me of who I am as a leader and why I’m prepared to continue jumping through never-ending hoops to please others.

This is what I read:

“I love what I do. I’ve had the privilege of working with so many talented people, whose dedication and zest for teaching always continue to amaze me. I feel incredibly proud to be a headteacher. Even now, when people ask me what I do, I love seeing their reaction when I tell them. It always strikes a chord with people. I sometimes half expect them to give me a hug, as if to thank me for singlehandedly trying to save the world. Do you ever feel like this, or is it just me?

When I was in sixth form, I remember going to a careers event and being told that the key to a successful life was to find something you enjoy doing and then get someone to pay you to do it. Even better, if it’s something you are good at and it’s something the world needs. This then becomes your purpose in life. I’ve since learnt that it’s what’s known as having a firm persuasion in your work, and is – according to the poet and author David Whyte – one of our greatest and missed opportunities: “To feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time.” It is, he says, “one of the great triumphs of human existence.” It’s what allows us to move mountains…

…But as much as I love my job, there are bits I really don’t enjoy anymore. More than anything, I’ve had enough of being judged on how well I jump to other people’s tunes. The relentless pressure, for example, to become ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, to come top of the league tables, to be in the top 10% of this or the top 1% of that. And all based on somebodies tune. It’s about time I started to jump to my own again.

I’ve now come to the point where I’ve realised I can’t see out the rest of my career, continually trying to incrementally improve test scores; to eke out a percentage point here and a percentage there. Marginal gains are all well and good, but not in the context of test scores. I find the thought of this entirely unedifying and certainly not the reason why I became a headteacher. As goals go, it’s not exactly going to rip up trees. Besides, how could I possibly motivate my staff on the basis that this be the sole purpose of our being? Would you want to come and be a part of this magical journey? Of course not.

So there needs to be another way.

If you read this book from cover to cover you will find out how I had the privilege of being a part of some great teams that transformed several schools to outstanding. The highs and the lows. The trials and tribulations. The sleepless nights and nagging self-doubts, especially when inspectors tell you that what you’re trying to do is not good enough. Even though deep-down I always knew my school was great, there was always that fear that others won’t. And unfortunately, it’s their view that counts. Not mine. So if I were to tweet what the #ArtofStandingOut is all about, this is what I’d write: ‘How to transform your school in a way that is meaningful, courteous and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted.’

Perhaps then, this is the ‘other way’. To no longer get hung up by others, Ofsted included. It goes much deeper than this though. What if we could still continue to improve our schools, with or without an inspectorate, but do so in a manner that focuses on a holistic education that is both wholesome and worthwhile? Let us not get hung up on the notion of ‘outstanding’, whatever that may be, but instead, look at it a different way. We need to redefine outstanding to suit our own agenda. We need to be brave enough to drape banners across our gates on our say-so and not on that of others who only step foot in our schools once every leap year.

For too long we’ve been stymied by Ofsted rhetoric and their ever-changing proxies for what they believe the best schools must look like. The Art of Standing Out is about setting us free from the shackles of Ofsted so that we can examine our schools through a fresh new prism, one that allows us to filter out and see only the things that matter…

… This book will hopefully challenge your perceptions of what a great school looks like. When you’ve finished reading it I want you to go back to your school and look again at how good you really are. And when I say ‘you’, I really do mean ‘you’. As a person, with deep-rooted and honourable beliefs that have served you well. Not ‘you’ in comparison to me, or another colleague that you know. It’s you versus you. The only true and meaningful indicator of your success as a leader comes from within. It is your school, your tune.

 No matter how ‘good’ you believe yourself to be, I can assure you that if you know where to look, you will be amazed at how much better you really are. The Art of Standing Out allows you to look at your school, not through the tunnelled vision of an inspection framework, but through a set of lenses that helps you make sense of how great your school really is…”

So, Amen to all that. Determined to stay true to the principles of the book, I flicked through the section on the Lenses of Perception and made sure I had a set to take with me to school. And when I did, and put them on, I realised exactly how jolly good the school really is, regardless of what the inspectors may think. In particular I kept my Calibration lens firmly in place to ensure that I stayed true to my moral compass and beliefs. You can read more about the lenses here via @teachertoolkit.

In a few weeks’ time, when the report is published I’ll take you through what happened on the day. If you’ve never been through an inspection before as a leader (and I’ve experienced over 60 on all sides of the fence) I hope that it will reassure you. Or not.

In the meantime, if you are expecting the call, don’t have nightmares.