Dear Brown Skin - Paula Shore

Dear Brown Skin

 

I have cried because of you and I have smiled because of you.

I have loved because of you and I have been loved because of you.

I have hated because of you and I have been hated because of you.

I sit at tables because of you and I am omitted from tables because of you.

I have learnt because of you and I have forgotten because of you. 

I have been assured because of you and I have been nervous because of you. 

People look up to me because of you and people look down on me because of you.

I have actively listened because of you and I have spoken out because of you.

I have been hit because of you and I have been hugged because of you.

I get into spaces because of you and I get excluded from spaces because of you.

I have been rejected because of you and I have been accepted because of you.

I have rejected you, accepted you, marvelled at you and been true to you.

I love you, brown skin.  

Stuff Schools Are Made Of

The current pandemic has demanded that some professions redefine how a leader is successful. Behind organisations that have continued to be high performing there has been an enabling culture that has, at times, trailblazed.

Being tasked with identifying the functional or dysfunctional aspects of schools I work with, enables me to garner a summary of the arsenal successful ones harness and nurture. 

Experiencing crises in schools, and leading or influencing them to sustainable success, I recognise that one of the components was a cognisance of the relationship between staff and high-performance. With people as the main variable within institutions, and believing people are complex, how they behave often determines the organisation’s performance and reputation. If understanding people’s behaviours were simple and then easily changed, surely it would follow that building formulas for successful teams would also be simple. Thompson (2018) states,

In our desperate search for simplicity, people want success to work like a garage door opener, where a four-digit code springs the lock. But culture is not a keypad and people are not doors. Our codes are ever changing in reaction to our environment. p.xv.

Suggesting that people are not easily programmable and solutions that work for one organisation aren’t always easily adapted so that they work for another in a similar context. People respond to their environment. People’s experiences and responses will vary; thus, managing people with different experiences and different responses is complex.  As humans we problem solve. Whilst better understanding our behaviours is challenging, we continually try to create formulas or systems that enable a level of certainty of success. This essay will critically evaluate how leaders develop high performance, agile and collaborative cultures in schools. It will also explore the relationships between people and performance and the role that organisational structures play in supporting those relationships and consider some of the consequences of neglecting people’s basic emotional needs.

Teaching is a relational career; this may be why the profession often demands that its staff and stakeholders reflect on the dynamics of effective relationships. Undoubtedly our leadership styles are influenced by our values and a myriad of experiences.

All organisations start with a vision of how they will impact. The culture of an organisation is often born out of the leadership’s values, ethics, behaviours and capacity to achieve its vision. Without positive values that underpin the organisation, it will not thrive for long. Jack Whitehead (2018 cited Academic Assembly, University of Bath, 1988) agrees;

High sounding phrases like ‘values of freedom, truth and democracy’, ‘rational debate’, ‘integrity’, have been used. It is easy to be cynical about these and to dismiss them as hopelessly idealistic, but without ideals and a certain agreement about shared values a community cannot be sustained and will degenerate.

 (Location 723/3829)

Effective headship I believe requires, among others, 3 key elements:

  • expert pedagogy;
  • clarity on how to lead the organisation;
  • capacity to manage and influence people.

For all these elements to be sustained and progressed, school leaders should build appropriate structures.

Without a team with the capacity to deliver on its core purpose, to effectively teach, the school will fail. Recruiting the best teachers is not the only mechanism that will develop or sustain success. Schools require a dynamic set of structures, starting with a clear vision and practised values, which attract the best candidates. I have 3 core beliefs regarding recruitment:

  • there is a suitable role for every teacher;
  • teachers have a responsibility to seek roles that are commensurate with their values and behaviours;
  • school leaders have a responsibility to recruit candidates that demonstrate values and behaviours that are commensurate with their vision. 

So, in the role becoming vacant, we all have a responsibility in ensuring that the most appropriate person is appointed. From advert to the induction process, the recruitment structures should be wholly aligned with the school’s vision and values. As any deviation from this vision is an unnecessary distraction and could stall the success of the school.  

Earlier I mentioned that people are complex. Therefore, solutions to problems with people are complex.  So, if schools have structures which enable them to recruit a cognitively diverse set of staff with diverse backgrounds and different reference points, the more likely they are to solve the challenges that all schools are presented with. Syed, (2019) explains,

Homogeneous groups don't just underperform; They do so in predictable ways. When you are surrounded by similar people, you are not just likely to share each other’s blind spots, but to reinforce them. (p24)

Suggesting that by not recruiting cognitively diverse teams, the organisation is more likely to fail.

Syed (2019) reiterates the need for cognitively diverse teams further,

Teams that are diverse in personal experiences tend to have a richer more nuanced understanding of their fellow human beings they have a wider array of perspectives - fewer blind-spots. (p23)

Seemingly, by guarding the organisation’s blind-spots, organisations are more likely to garner success.

As a headteacher in 2012 and in a school that was judged by Ofsted as in special measures, I inherited a team that was cognitively and ethnically diverse, with many staff drawn from the local community and many staff that were new to their roles. With a sense of urgency to succeed, the school had never been judged as good since Ofsted’s inception in 1992, it was essential that I developed structures which allowed me to identify and harness the staff’s wisdom, skills and knowledge, so that we operated more effectively. Despite having a cognitively diverse staff, it soon became apparent that as a leadership team we didn’t have the capability, to corral staff to a united position.  Carter (2020) concludes,

Capability = Competency + Capacity (p88).

What I had inherited was people creating a cacophony and using their skills and values to pull the school in different directions. What I needed was a team with different voices, skills and values that were pulling the school in the same direction. With the school having experienced 10 heads in 10 years, the varying structures, values and vision had been lost and confusion had set in. We started a journey under a different set of systems with a focus on long-term gains; we began to build a vision together.

Carter (2020) states,

A focus on short-term quick wins almost always means that leaders make choices that work initially but are unsustainable and, depending on the strategy, and affordable. The most effective leaders and school improvers across the school system lead transformational change that lasts for many years.  (p94)

Arguing, investment in the long-term vision better secures sustainability of the success.

All schools have values, ranging from ‘respect’ to ‘pupil first’. How these values are interpreted and practised often determines the success and reputation of the organisation. Whilst the school I inherited practised mainly sound values; it was also staff centric, as demonstrated by:

  • inequitable pay awards;
  • regular safeguarding or staff conduct breaches;
  • part-time roles that suited staff needs rather than children’s;
  • above average pupil exclusions.

This imbalanced culture needed to be an area I addressed first.

To test staff capability, before staff changes were considered, I set up a variety of non-negotiable structures where I could use my skills and experiences and gather intelligence to lead the school to success.

These included;

  • Reflection and planning opportunities with stakeholders, born wholly out of our understanding of our core purpose and our lived values; by drawing up a manifesto with 1, 3- and 5-year intervals. Plans to bridge the gap between our realistic position and our ambitions were later developed.  
  • Seeking opportunities with and for staff to develop skills, knowledge and behaviours; with a focus on better understanding pedagogy, purpose of role and how both contributed towards the vision;
  • Providing opportunities to be outward facing, networking with and shadowing others locally and globally in schools and in other industries;
  • Monitoring the impact of the newly implemented plans against the targets and the accountability systems;
  • Creating spaces to reflect on and revise plans as necessary with partners; external (HR, professional survey group and experienced coaches from varying industries) and internal (governors and aspiring/experienced leaders). Giving permission to take calculable risks in a psychologically safe space. Edmondson (1999) describes a psychologically safe space as a,

shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. (p350)

Developing new cultures and non-negotiable accountability measures often heightens staff anxiety. I wanted to lessen anxiety but needed staff to take risks. According to Syed (2020)

One emphatic finding from psychological research is that humans dislike uncertainty and the sense that we lack control over our lives. When faced by uncertainty we often attempt to regain control by putting our faith in a dominant figurehead who can restore order. (p121)

Implementing those structures, I initially adopted a democratic leadership style, Goleman (2000) describes this style as,

building consensus through participation (p5).

Although a pitfall of this style was potentially repeating the outcome prior to my arrival; where seemingly everyone was listened to and everyone’s wishes were acted upon, leading to confusion and system-wide failure.

Although I felt uncomfortable about deviating from my normal democratic style of leadership to a more coercive one, Goleman (2000) defines this style as

This ‘Do what I say’, approach can be very effective in a turnaround situation. (p85),

the staff centric culture needed to swiftly shift towards a more child or customer first one, if system-wide success was to thrive.

Once our vision, via a manifesto, was established, I was able to switch between leadership styles.

Goleman (2000) concludes,

being able to switch among the authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching styles as conditions dictate creates the best organizational climate and optimizes business performance. (p87)

Implementing the accountability framework with a skeleton of skilled staff nearly broke me. It was a key mechanism I relentlessly made time for, which often resulted with me working an unsustainable 70+-hour weeks. If I was to test the 100 staff’s capability, I needed evidence to drive the next phase. Later I would develop a diverse set of leaders; find time to develop relationships and trust. By plotting staff’s names on a  Carroll Diagram against can and can’t and will and won’t headings, I concluded a picture of staff’s needs. Those in the quadrant of can and will demonstrated the skills of aspiring leaders and those in the quadrant of can’t and won’t demonstrated  a lack of capability. Both groups were afforded a range of support mechanisms, including change in timetables, shadowing opportunities, an external coach, regular check in points and clear expectations of deadlines.  My quickly self-improving team added capacity and, after further shadowing experiences and CPD sessions, were able to more effectively lead on aspects of the school improvement plans.

The arrival of a new headteacher is in some ways akin to a pandemic, when both displace a sense a sense of place and order; which may lead to people underperforming. By implementing coaching and designated leadership time off site leaders were able to augment their roles to better suit their styles of leadership and respond to the changing needs of the school. Laker et al., (2020) suggests,

While this may create operational challenges, it enables opportunities to develop task, relational, and cognitive landscapes that bring meaning to work.

Bringing more autonomy to their roles incentivised staff and the school benefitted. Ultimately the culture shifted and better met the community’s needs owing to the actions and agile structures. This was later followed by achieving nationally average, or better, key performance indicators and the school was judged by Ofsted as good two years’ later.   Illustrating when both appropriate structures and emotionally intelligent behaviours amalgamate, these can enable and sustain high performance.

The next part of the essay will further explore the relationship between people’s emotional intelligence and performance.

Achieving a vision with people requires leaders to consider and adopt a myriad of effective skills and behaviours. Goleman (1998) believes,

Truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self- awareness cover self- regulation, motivation empathy and social skill. (p1)

Suggesting that emotional intelligence allows leaders to better understand their community and position them to achieve together. Being self-aware, values-led and cognisant of people’s emotional needs in the community, enables leaders to build the successful frameworks within their institutions.

As a newly appointed assistant headteacher in an amalgamation of an infant and junior school, it was necessary for my headteacher, who I was unfamiliar with, to galvanise the team and corral us to drive the necessary radical and rapid improvements. The headteacher was a values-based leader, exuding and often modelling the expectations she had of everyone and many of the Nolan Principles (Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995)

  • selflessness
  • integrity
  • objectivity
  • accountability
  • openness
  • honesty
  • leadership

This was acknowledged, along with the success of her leadership, during Ofsted’s autumn visit. Under her leadership staff were diligent, knowledgeable, ambitious and dutifully supported the families in the complex community in South East London.   Syed (2019) argues,

Prestigious individuals on the other hand are followed out of freely bestowed respect they are in that sense role models.

This means in turn that their generosity towards others is likely to be copied tilting the entire group in a more cooperative direction. (p113-114)

Despite the progress of the school under her empathetic and democratic style of leadership, she lacked some professional grip, particularly with school finance protocols, which was necessary in order to sustain and progress the school.  She swiftly left. The staff, and subsequently the school, were plunged into an awry that would take the length of primary aged child’s schooling to fully recover from.Whilst the head modelled emotional intelligence in her leadership and in her address to stakeholders and pupils, what she hadn’t had time to do was develop an effective team that could work together without her direction, and seemingly without her type of emotional intelligence it gained its momentum from.

The deputy headteacher was the first to take on one of the vacant substantive roles and became the headteacher, while all other leaders were temporarily promoted. The values cited in the school’s prospectus and on its walls didn’t change, but the newly practised ones did. This new headteacher isolated themselves, was unable to drive the necessary changes and failed to address the deterioration in staff conduct with rigour and consistency. The lack of emotional intelligence and the capacity to effectively demonstrate the Nolan Principles and create psychologically safe spaces were tangible and a popular topic of discussion by staff.

The previously familiar psychological safe spaces allowed for the pedagogical discourse and leadership capability to be explored without reprisals; essential for us new to leadership roles. If we were to effectively deliver on our core purpose and lead in a complex school, accessing shadowing and coaching opportunities and one to one professional development conversations with line managers, so that we could to evolve as credible leaders, were necessary mechanisms. Scott (2019) cites,

Google employees, analysing more than 250 attributes of 180+ active teams… found that the five key dynamics for successful teams included, psychological safety, Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning, and Impact. But psychological safety was by far the most important of the five dynamics, because it's the foundation of the other four.  (p240)

Void of much needed emotional intelligence, including providing psychologically safe spaces, goodwill dwindled because it was neither acknowledged or appreciated, so did the ad hoc and formal conversations and subsequently so did the energy and improvements. Within one year, many teachers, including two senior leaders, left and within 17 months Ofsted judged the school as in special measures.

This story, alongside Kim Scott’s narrative on Google’s survey’s findings, seek to illustrate the influence both an emotionally intelligent and one lacking emotional intelligence can have on relationships and the education, opportunities, wellbeing and safety of those they are responsible for.  By consistently expecting and effectively practising the Nolan Principles the school ran smoothly, and without them, it seemingly collapsed.

Expecting all to endorse and practise values, which are based on being loving, just and ambitious for self and others, should be an inherent aspect of all leaders’ behaviours. The Nolan Principles are integral to the Headteachers’ Standards (Department for Education, 2020) these form the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders.

Not only then is it expected for all school staff to employ these characteristics and behaviours, but that when effectively practised, it is anticipated, the school will journey to greater and sustainable success.

Sometimes being self-aware, being emotionally intelligent and practising the Nolan Principles doesn’t always allow you to influence the outcome needed. I used to referee at Tae Kwon Do sparring competitions. Despite rigorous training, including unconscious biases awareness, it didn’t negate the fact that when refereeing, I was biased towards an opponent I was familiar with, particularly if there wasn’t an obvious winner. I tried to avoid this behaviour, but my emotions influenced my decisions.  With punches and kicks sometimes landing in quick succession, it was almost impossible to record them all, so I defaulted to what I thought should be the outcome. I undoubtedly made some inaccurate conclusions, which were heavily weighted by my emotions, as opposed to needing to be influenced by what I witnessed. When faced with two unfamiliar opponents the outcome was rarely swayed by my emotions or biased thoughts. I considered how I could behave differently, to conclude a more just outcome. However, the only variable between the two scenarios was familiarity, and familiarity was saddled with emotions. I was incapable of separating familiarity from emotions.

Whilst I was aware of the limitations my emotions placed on my capacity to be fair, it did not prevent me from lying or exercising a bias, leading to an unfair judgement. The more I tried and focused on being unbiased, the more I was distracted from concentrating on the task in hand.

According to Bhattacharjee (2017)

Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others. Which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric so much that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.

When we trace the reason for lying, during my refereeing days one reason was the protection of the reputation of the fighter and the sport, there is often a display of being human and compassionate.

Laker (2020) explained,

the more in tune you are with your emotions, the better placed you are to be able to mitigate them and work with them.

Suggesting, being aware of the ease at which one has the capacity to lie enables us to better understand  and demonstrate empathy when we are confronted with someone who is knowingly lying, or we suspect are lying; which I often faced when addressing staff or pupil misconduct.

In conclusion, this essay argues that structures are key to building and sustaining the success all organisations need. There is sometimes a temptation to focus on short-term gains and overlook the importance of long-term mechanisms; the latter will enable the organisation to sustain its success.

Effectively practising positive values underpins the fabric and success of the community or school. The stakeholders and pupils have often chosen the organisation because of the values it practises. If these lived values are different to what is on the school’s display walls or prospectuses, people will notice; leave; and the road to success will be tougher.

I have identified that people are complex. Hence emotional intelligence, understanding and managing behaviours, is needed to build relationships and effective, agile teams.  

Finally, I have argued that despite leaders being aware of their limitations, they are not wholly immune from making inaccurate judgments, but by being self-aware, they are more likely to mitigate them and engineer success.

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Department for Education, 2020. Headteachers' Standards. London: UK Government.

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Laker, B., Patel, C., Budhwar, C. and Malik, A., 2020. How Job Crafting Can Make Work More Satisfying. MIT Sloan Management Review. [online] Available from: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-job-crafting-can-make-work-more-satisfying/?use_credit=0633b7bb0014d1e17f52b06010aff548 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2020].

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