6 Things I’d Tell Anyone New to Senior Leadership


6 Things I’d tell Anyone New to Senior Leadership.

Life is a great teacher.

When I was pregnant with my first child I used to wonder what on earth people did all day when they were at home with a baby. “How hard could it be?” I reasoned. Sleep deprived and feeling victorious if I made it out to the letter box before 4 in the afternoon, I had a completely different understanding some weeks later! There were many pieces of advice people gave to me in those weeks, some of it helpful, some of it not, but the life journey itself taught me more than I could otherwise have known. As I draw to the close of my first term heading a school campus, while I feel a bit like the chipmunk in the picture, I am again reflecting on what I have learned from this particular life journey… things I couldn’t know outside the act of stepping into the role. These are the 6 things I’d tell anyone new to a senior leadership role.

Walk in the authority you have.

Your people want you to lead. Don’t let them down. This is not about lording it over them or behaving in an autocratic, non-consultative manner. It is about being secure in the job you’ve been asked to do – caring more about the people you lead and leading them in the right direction than you do about what people think of you. Have you game face on. Be strong and just do it.

Go down on the deck but remember you need to steer the ship.

Don’t be ‘Captain Fluffy’ (West Wing fans will understand this). While it is important to roll up your sleeves and get involved, to be a servant leader, it’s not the job of the ship’s captain to be scrubbing the decks. By all means, grab a brush and get in and help from time to time but if you stay there failing to set the direction and steer the course, you’ll either end up on the rocks or face a mutiny. You need to be where people expect to find you when they need you the most. Be there. It’s your job.

Speak truth into the negative thoughts that tell you you can’t.

Sometimes things can feel so overwhelming… or can BE so overwhelming… that self-doubt creeps in. Thoughts turn to the negative – “What were they thinking asking me to do this?” “I have got no idea what I am doing!” “Any minute now, someone is going to see what I’m really like and then everyone will know I’m a fraud.” “I can’t do this!” The truth is, you can and you must. Senior leadership is about doing the hard stuff. Negative self-talk is paralysing. Don’t indulge in it. Speak the truth over it, out loud if necessary – I am not a fraud. I have skills, talents and the passion to do this. I am learning to do the things I’ve never done before. I’ve been asked to do this. I can and I will.

Make decisions. Period.

Being indecisive is one of the cruellest things you can be with your team. It leaves everyone confused and everything undone. There is an extraordinary scene in the mini-series, Band of Brothers, in which a poorly appointed leader can’t decide what to do in the heat of battle. He vacillates and cowers in the face of making a hard decision and in the process gets himself and many of his men killed. In the end a decisive leader gives a command with such strength that those carrying it out do so without fear and with success. Sometimes, even a poor decision can be better than no decision, because after all, we learn from mistakes. We don’t learn anything from nothing.

Your leadership will rise or fall on two things: character and judgement

All leaders need a good moral compass. There is no place in senior leadership for cowardice, dishonesty, misplaced loyalty or insincerity. When you act on principle, speak with candour, deal honourably with others and determine to take the path of incorruptibility you win respect and earn trust. Seek wise counsel to help you make judgements based on what is just, with the big picture in mind and the best interests of all uppermost in your thoughts. This is rarely easy. It is often costly. It is essential.

Conflict in Inevitable

Conflict is confronting and uncomfortable. Sometimes you will need to do and say things people don’t like. Early on in my leadership, my husband gave me a mug. Emblazoned across the front are the words, “Put your big girl panties on and just do it!” Learning to take the hard road, the right road, the necessary road can be painful but the health of your community or company may depend on it. Sometimes it may only be your conscience that knows it was right and that needs to be enough. Know this and be prepared.

Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps via Compfight cc

Looking at Paintings from the Canvas Side

Looking at Paintings from the Canvas Side: A Comment on Perspectives

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My husband jumped out of a plane last week. While he was up there challenging himself, I lay beneath a tree in the early autumn sunshine, eyes intent on the metal bird which hummed into view then released my beloved from its belly.

From where I lay it was a picture of complete serenity; a gentle unfurling of a red canopy against a blue sky, a graceful floating to the ground. I am told the experience of having your feet dangling out the side of a plane at eleventy hundred feet and contending with the wind in your face while free falling brings an altogether different perspective. The pictures testify! Kudos to Mark, though. He’s done something I never will.

photo (5)Last month, my 18 year old daughter caught a plane to Germany then a train from Frankfurt to a town called Herrnhut on the German/Czech border – alone. Without me. From where I sat at my desk or at the dinner table or on the lounge, or in the car, this looked like the most insane, preposterous, terrifying thing in the world.

I am told the experience of a first international flight as an independent adult, the wonder of navigating airports alone and of frolicking in the German woods brings an altogether different perspective. She is having the adventure of a lifetime and is growing and maturing in such a way that my heart sings. The pictures testify.

Last week I drove into the car park at school. For those who’ve been there, you know this is a risky business. It is not the sealed bitumen paradise, complete with curbing guttering, that many have the luxury of parking on each day. No. Rather it is a dust bowl in Summer, a lake when it rains and an obstacle course of inverted speed bumps most of the year. This day,  I navigated my way in and, thankfully, out of Potholes 1, 2, 3 and 4 etc., located the high ground, donned my gum boots, rolled my trouser legs and began to swim to the front door. Imagine my thoughts when a 4 wheel drive powered its way out of Pothole 379 and covered the entire back of my poor little red car in mud. I breathed deeply and swam on, reflecting on the joy of knowing, soon and very soon, the car park upgrade will begin. I’m not sure about the shoes in your house, but the ones in mine will be celebrating when that day comes.

Perspective is so important. In each of these examples there is one side of the story and then another. A way of seeing that seems to be the only one but in truth, there is more. Skydiving is both wonderful and terrifying. Letting our adult children go is both terrifying and wonderful. Living with the car park at school is… well, truthfully, a blessing, because we have one.

In much of life, we don’t get to see ‘the other side’ of events. It’s a bit like looking at the back of a painting, presuming it’s a bit ordinary with its tape and string and not choosing to turn it round and look at the canvas side. I am reminded often of my own need to do this – to make the deliberate choice to consider things from different angles and to see them in their fullness.

There’s a beautiful poem at the end of Cameron Nunn’s novel, Shadows in The Mirror. It’s sourced from the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul in the book of 1 Corinthians. Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely just as God knows me completely. Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.”

It would be easy to look at Paul’s words as pejorative, to consider that a child’s way of seeing is ‘less than’ and that childish things must be put off. In the context of Jesus’ own  insistence that we should be childlike, I think this would be a misreading. We in the education world know just how valuable a child’s view of the world can be. I think, here, we see another comment on perspectives and that different perspectives come with maturity.

This is actually what I hope for in the young people I teach. I hope that as they grow in maturity they will grow in their capacity to see things from a range of perspectives, to look to the whole rather than looking through a glass dimly. I hope they will be people who operate out of a spirit of love, that they will choose to turn paintings to the canvas side, that they will celebrate the risk taking of others and that they will determine to find the blessing even in the muddiest moments of their lives.