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The Three Little Words that no leader should be afraid to say

We all have an image of a great leader – usually someone who is wise, fair and inspiring, who we turn to in times of need. When we go to them with a problem, they provide the solution. They know stuff, and when they tell us, we can put our trust in it.

The problem with such aspirational images is that those of us who are mere mortals feel the pressure to present this model of leadership to their team at all times, however unrealistic it might be. The irony is that it is often the most inexperienced and unconfident leaders who feel the greatest pressure to be all-knowing. They are terrified that the mask might slip, and they will be exposed as someone who has no more special powers than everyone else in the team.

This means that there are three words that many leaders feel terrified of saying – ‘I don’t know’.

We see this most starkly with politicians. When the Prime Minister stands up at Question Time, or a minister is being interviewed on Newsnight, or even when a prospective MP is taking part in a hustings at the local church hall, ‘I don’t know’ is almost the worst answer they can give. They need to be able to talk about energy strategy, crime figures, fiscal policy, trade agreements – whatever the subject that’s thrown at them, they feel the need to project an image of someone with the facts at their fingertips and the knowledge securely in their head.

Of course, that’s not the reality – we can’t know everything. Leaders have not been chosen simply because they can store more knowledge than anyone else in the organisation. Not knowing is not the same as not being able to.

In fact ‘I don’t know’ are words that can have great power – depending on the words that immediately follow them.

‘I don’t know, what do you think?’

‘I don’t know, I’ve struggled to find that out as well. I wonder if X might know?’

‘I don’t know yet, I’m going to read up on this.’

‘I don’t know, this is the first time I’ve seen this happen, we need to watch this very carefully?’

‘I don’t know, let me have a think about it and I’ll get back to you.’

Let’s face it, if a leader knew everything, they really wouldn’t need a team. There is a simple solution to the problem of not knowing something – finding it out. Having spent so much time in classrooms where pupils expect us to know everything, we fall into the habit of assuming that’s our default position.

Schools are complex institutions, and have become progressively more complex in recent decades. Managing this complexity is an essential part of school leadership – school leaders have the ultimate responsibility for pupil outcomes, safeguarding, premises management, HR, data management security, pedagogy, behaviour, staff CPD, the list goes on. It’s impossible to be an expert in all these areas, and ultimately it’s not sensible to try. In fact, when the desire to be seen as all-knowing and super-confident becomes too great, it can prevent us from seeking advice and support, or from admitting that a change is necessary.

Obviously, presenting a confident and positive face is an essential leadership skill, but so is authenticity and honesty and we sometimes have to balance the two. It also can work against building a true collaborative team – if the leader of a team has all the answers, the rest of us are simply functionaries.

By 2020, I had been in school leadership positions for 28 years in a wide variety of roles and contexts, and it was 23 years since my first headship – I had been round the block a few times, bought the T-shirt, seen it all. I was falling into the trap of thinking that ‘I don’t know’ was something I didn’t really need any more. Then came coronavirus. Suddenly ‘I don’t know’ was the only sensible response for school leaders, and I was no exception.

However, the myth of the all-knowing leader proved a hard one for many people to ignore, and much of the pressure and stress that many school leaders felt came down to the fact that they felt that they should have the answers, purely by virtue of their job title. On many occasions, members of staff, parents and governors come to the Head with crucial high-stakes questions – when will schools be open again? How can you guarantee that everyone in school will be safe? How are you going to make sure that students aren’t disadvantaged by the time they have spent learning at home? – to which the only honest and sensible answer is ‘I don’t know’, but that may be the last thing people want or need to hear. This is why the words that follow it are the ones where true leadership can be shown.

Thanks to the excellent range of training and development opportunities available for leaders, new Head Teachers take on the role far better informed and equipped than in the days when I first became a Head, although it could be argued that the complexity of the role has increased at the same rate. Does that make this message more or less important?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know…

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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