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the messy path to confidence and authenticity as an inexperienced leader

A participant (‘John’) in one of our live, online, face-to-face programs recently expressed his frustration at knowing how to be a leader in his small school in his small community, especially when it comes to relating to his colleagues who need to lift their game.

John was fine with running meetings, offering his perspectives, guiding new teachers and saying what sometimes needs to be said to students and parents. When policy outlined a clear position he was on top of it and responded appropriately. It was those grey-zone situations with colleagues in which he struggled: a teacher might be slipping into impatience with students, might not be preparing sufficiently for class, might be undermining a colleague or might be cutting corners with assessment. All these issues might not necessarily threaten a colleague’s tenure or career but nevertheless require leadership intervention. These are the types of situations which inexperienced leaders may gradually become aware of, and develop a nagging sense of duty to intervene in, but for which there is no easy entry-point into the required conversation.  

Do I need to do anything about this?

While John recognises that if something were a blatant breach of professional standards he would have no qualms about responding, he is haunted by recognising that he regularly encounters scenarios which he feels he should probably intervene in some way but does not. He balks because he is neither sure what to say nor how to say it in ways which will be well-received and effective.  John is concerned about the harm to relationships to people with whom he works every day and socialises with if he speaks up. Meanwhile, he does nothing and the subpar behaviour of those colleagues continues.

As John says, “It wasn’t long ago I was a peer of these same teachers, now I am one step up. They are good teachers and great people. Some are friends and we play in the same social sports teams.” He is aware that something fundamental about his core integrity is exposed and is at risk of eroding. It reminded me that, as a school Principal, irrespective of what I espoused, the standard I walked past was the standard I set. John is unsettled by recognising that his ethical and professional equilibrium is tilting, and that his inaction is gnawing at his self-respect.

Crossing leadership thresholds

John’s dilemma resonates with my memories of similar experiences at a similar career stage. I recall feeling, as an emerging leader, a sense of inadequacy bordering on shame, for ‘not noticing’ things that were happening around me. If I dared to give conscious thought to them at all, I hoped a senior colleague might notice instead, or that the matter privately concerning me might disappear of its own accord, which of course it never did.

What I learned over time is what my colleague  said, “Are we willing to try to raise an idea when we are not certain, when we risk looking like we do not know what we are talking about, or when we may even be seen as causing doubt and uncertainty for others? Or as Einstein believed, might be met with prejudice or ridicule.”

A leadership challenge for all of us is to constantly challenge ourselves to bring to the surface that which is highest, deepest and truest in us. This can be very painful as it confronts us head-on with what we are avoiding. We all develop subliminal survival strategies for excusing ourselves and avoiding the truth of the leadership thresholds that we seek to cross.

Trying to stay whole

The more we avoid speaking up or taking action in those moments, the more a gap opens up between the person we aspire to be and the person we really are. Left unchecked the cumulative weight of this can take us eventually to self-loathing and despair.

I think a really important point for all leaders, experienced or inexperienced, is that being whole incorporates our human frailties as well as our gifts and strengths. Entering a space of authentic reflection and acknowledging what lies in our shadow can guide some of our most powerful learning. Many people renowned for their successes will sometimes acknowledge that their success often rose out of their darkest moments, their failures, triggering an almost crucible-like transformation in seeing what needs to be done. So long as we are open to it, the pain of our ‘failures’ can often redirect us to the direction in which we seek to proceed.

So, back to John. He is feeling a sense of impending failure and is not sure if he has what it takes to be a leader. What he does not know is that all of us who have walked a path of leadership have experienced our own version of that sense of weakness, of not being up to the challenge and being a ‘loser’. However, we can also capitalise on our shortcomings, rather than seeking to completely eradicate them, and use them to navigate to our strengths.

In John’s case, his options need not be reduced to a dichotomous ‘intervene or ignore’. There can often be a third way, which can frequently be sparked by a non-judgemental, empathetic, encouraging conversation, or series of conversations, with the other party. By striking up a conversation designed to elicit the other person’s consciousness of their competing values, often a rich bond can be forged with the other person who feels a leadership connection.

Seeing beyond our shadow

And for John, entering that space of authentic reflection to see beyond what his shadow masks, might require the proactive support of his supervisor or mentor, perhaps in the form of powerful coaching conversations to help him line up his own values and to summon the resolve and personal resources to take a step across the next leadership threshold he faces.

Dr Greg Morgan is Head of School at NESLI.

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