It is important in any leadership role to be able to step back and press “pause” for a moment to stop, think and be willing to learn and grow. For me an important way to do this is by our annual trip to Birmingham for what was the NCTL conference called “Seizing Success”. Over the last few years it had gradually become more mixed in the quality of speakers and also less likely to offer any independent thought as the NCTL became an executive arm of the DfE, of course we all know you have to evolve to survive! This year it was led and organised by CfBT, ASCL and NAHT and what a breath of fresh air it was as we had the theme “Inspiring Leadership“. The five essential steps for me are easy to define…
- Ensure a broad range of independent thinking and challenging speakers to talk about leadership, motivation and learning
- Surround yourself with like-minded leaders, some of whom you “know and love”
- Stir it all up for 2 1/2 days
- Allow to marinate and take time to think it all over
- Serve hot and ensure you share the experience as broadly as possible
So what did I take from the experience this year? I will try and share some highlights and a glimpse of the experience of what it was like in three short instalments starting with Benjamin Zander.
Benjamin Zander – The Art of Possibility
Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and entered the stage like the Doctor from “Back to the Future”. He was booked to speak for an hour but we were transfixed for nearly two by his whirlwind talk on classical music, leadership and inspiration. The crescendo included getting 1500 school leaders to sing Happy Birthday to a colleague and then finally Ode to Joy in German – far from what anyone expected to do in Birmingham.
1. The traditional role of leadership as the conductor is dead
As conductor you have complete control which was top down, hierarchical and male. You were not even allowed to speak directly to the conductor but only ask a question. The new leader is someone who is masterful at creating and holding infinite possibilities. Like all human endeavour there is always more than just the person you see on stage, we are the sum of our previous experiences and the team around us.
2. When facing a problem create a new framework
Can you join the 9 dots with only 4 lines? Our job is to remind the “players” the rhythm of transformation. If we pull together what is it that we can really achieve? We are constantly comparing and measuring between each other. We are simply called to be the best we can be. As a teacher he awarded all his class an “A” much to their surprise. He told them to write a letter to themselves beginning I have achieved an “A” this year because… the challenge beyond this was to fall passionately in love with this person so that it became a reality.
It is only when you give an “A” to someone that you can be truthful with them as you believe and support them unconditionally. It was a simple vote of confidence in the possibility that they have. When we are teaching we are looking to see this hidden potential, Michelangelo described this as “getting rid of the stone to reveal the statue”.
3. How fascinating!
When things go wrong we need to learn from it… rather than getting frustrated and angry just think or shout out “how fascinating” – I have already tried this and found it so liberating. If we have a vision we should stick to it without compromise. Nelson Mandela was offered the chance of freedom after 15 years if he abandoned his vision for a new South Africa, instead he endured the 27 years in prison to gain true freedom.
4. Don’t be trapped by downward spiral thinking, stick to the possibilities
Downward spiral thinking is consumed with the reasons that we can’t achieve our goal. It is immersed in blame, threat, negativity and doubt. A conductor realises that if you can awaken the possibility of the orchestra you can achieve greatness. Benjamin Zander gave all those in his orchestra a blank sheet of paper to make comments and express their ideas, far from the traditional role of conductor. He asked “what would help you to play more beautifully?”
5. Remember rule 6 – do not to take yourself too seriously!
As a leader we need to radiate possibilities and this is where we can live out this vision. It is impossible to live a full life under the shadow of bitterness. If a vision is to become reality it needs to be shared by everyone. The challenge is to spend the rest of your life in realms of possibility and see what we can truly achieve. He described a cellist who was preparing for an audition and played very well but in a controlled way. Zander challenged him to push himself and let go and he played as a man inspired. He went to the audition and didn’t get it having played the first way. However he later went on to audition for lead cellist an orchestra in Madrid and thought “fuck it” I will play the second way. He said tells all his students and the schools he talks to know the importance of playing “beyond the fuck it”, in fact one Catholic Headteacher, a nun in America, had said that BTFI had become their school motto!
So we must all remember when things get tough that possibility is only one sentence away – we as leaders have to inspire people around us to see this too. The challenge we need to take from this is this how to inspire the confidence to conduct learning and progress in our schools. We can show an unrelenting belief in the ability of others, if we can do this we can achieve the potential of all in the schools we serve.