By Cole Andrew
Education Leaders: Here’s thought-challenge for you – what 10 words or images would describe yourself, your emotions, and your leadership in this moment?
The words of the Invictus poem by Willian Ernest Henely (1875) are said to have been recited by Nelson Mandella frequently throughout his 27 years in prison (1963 – 1990). I cannot begin to claim I my life’s challenges are as impacting as living under apartheid, in a world where people are starving, homeless or still living under oppressive regimes. Yet that for me is precisely the point, it shifts my mindset from my seemingly overwhelming circumstances to a healthier perspective. In this blog, it is my intent to share my thoughts on mind-shifts in leadership.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning’s of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
By William Ernest Henley
My life and work challenges remain staring me in the face. So, this weekend as I prepare for schools shifting their roles for the umpteenth in 12 months, I wonder if I am feeling bludgeoned, beaten into the shade, truly master of my fate, or perhaps somewhere in between. How about you?
Take my weekend challenge: pause for a moment, go for walk, shut yourself in a room, ride a bike …. Do whatever it takes to buy yourself a moment to think, press the pause button and whilst doing so, answer these questions:
- Which parts of the poem describe my inner self right now and how is that affecting my leadership in school?
- I wonder what each member of your leadership team may be feeling and perhaps the other staff.
- How about your loved ones?
The wellbeing and mental health of our nation is undoubtedly a concern in this season, and I am concerned that the very words wellbeing and work life balance are becoming words that are used but losing their intent. Is it even a sign of weakness for leaders to be talking about their wellbeing and emotional state? If an inspirational leader such as Nelson Mandella can identify the need to consider his mental health and find strategies to command captaincy of his soul, then perhaps we can allow ourselves permission to consider what might help us do the same.
Three things this poem helped me to take practical steps in leadership during the last 12 months:
 I identified true measures of success and means of measuring them. The top measure of success I concluded was the health of my relationships; personal and professional. We all know that building relationship is the key to motivating staff to follow your lead. Most schools will be thinking about some form of ‘catch up’ curriculum for the pupils, starting no doubt with supporting pupils’ emotional wellbeing and building their confidence to re-engage with full and busier classroom environments. What strategy are you putting in place to help yourself and your leaders to do the same? Pause and discuss … listen to different views.
 I identified the things in this world that hijack my mind, therefore, my sense of control over my fate and inner self (soul). Feeling overwhelmed invariably affects the way the people I lead respond, despite my best efforts to bury those things deep and carry on regardless. In my Headship roles, I reflect on the foolishness of times I have made this mistake. Ask your staff, if you dare, and they will tell you that they can always sense the atmosphere the Head teacher and leaders create. Similarly, the children will always sense the tension a teacher creates if they are not captaining their souls. This unspoken atmosphere affects the pressure children feel, even if the teacher is convinced, they are burying the pressure. The things of this world (targets, OFSTED, lesson observations, deadlines….) they can hijack how we feel about ourselves and our sense of control. How about taking each of those things and regaining our mind’s response to them. In my case, I learn:
- better admin and time management strategies
- to take each thought captive as I feel it rising up within me and reframe my response to it. E.g., what if OFSTED ask me about quality PE curriculum during lockdown? My reframed thought might be, we have kept children safe, checked in with them every week, built better connections with their parents online, sent them video clips to try physical activity at home and now we are planning to get them active outdoors 3 times a week to help them recover. No need to panic, my conscience is clear that we did what was reasonably possible in a world where hundreds of people were dying on a daily basis. I will be sure I evidence the impact of what we did achieve during ever-changing guidance from the DfE.
- To review the workload I have facing me and my colleagues. I thought about the things I can STOP doing, KEEP doing (because they are fruitful and helpful), CHANGE streamline. If it’s not a fruitful task for the students and staff, why are we still doing it? In my personal diary, I use the Eisenhower approach to helping achieve this priority setting each week.
 I had to get a grip on perspective. Like me, many will be mourning a sense of loss, either due to bereavement or simply a loss of ‘normal physical relationships.’ We are not in prison, starving or need be at a loss with our vision of the future. A leader’s most powerful tool in life is communicating and breathing hope into the world around us; even, as Mandella did, in a seemingly hopeless season of his life. What is your vision for the short, medium, and long term for your staff and pupils? Revisit it, recite it and find 1001 ways of communicating and breathing it into the relationships you reconnect from Monday onwards. In your ‘moments’ of panic, remember and celebrate all you have achieved in the last 12 months, tough as it has been, you have navigated the most challenging season of school life the modern world has known since WW2.
I hope this has given you pause for thought and you make time of the weekend to invest in you.
About Cole Andrew
Cole is a leadership consultant that supports leaders in education and health to thrive, to bear fruit, to live in honour (vigeo). Having led two specialist provisions as headteacher in two different areas in the country, Cole now invests in Next Gen Leaders. He is an associate inspector and a great advocate for wellbeing. Cole has been part of #TeamADL since its inception.
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