Six Principles for Principals #1

Only recently Nobody asked me (and not for the first time) to do some thinking about school improvement and leadership and to identify a core of ideas that I felt were important to share with Anybody. Here is what I would have replied to Somebody:

1. Only work with Outstanding colleagues

Of course there is a whole debate isn’t there about who has the right to label anyone outstanding and on what apolitical basis (I doubt very much whether some members of OfSTED would meet that last qualification, but that’s a story for another time). Nevertheless, I think that the plain English version of this statement is true and its realisation best exemplified by Benjamin Zander.

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Benjamin Zander famously gives his students an ‘A’ grade at the start of his courses, then asks them to write a letter dated a year later, describing exactly what they did to merit that ‘A’ grade. Crucially he urges his students to then fall ‘passionately in love with that person’. What a wonderful message. 

His belief is that expectation is a crushing lever on ambition, which leads to a downward spiral of despair at the sad state of affairs. Instead, he advocates an optimistic declaration in the face of failure of ‘How fascinating!’. This approach to risk taking, ambition and pushing the boundaries demands an element of courage, but also the assured understanding that failure is only failure if it is the last thing you do. If we learn from failure and try again, then it just a crucial stepping stone on our journey of success.

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 Of course, Mr Zander does not accept any old Joe in to his orchestra, but demands the highest of standards. This is the caveat that helps school leaders sleep at night. It is not that he revises his ‘A’ grade, but that he works with those that are hungry to achieve it. Many of us have colleagues that are hard working, but that is not enough to be an ‘A’ grade. What is required is hard work on the right things. The process of identifying the right areas to work can be tortuous and is best done in discussion, I would say through coaching (more on that in a later post).

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But equally important is the belief and self-belief that a colleague can live in to the possibility of the ‘A’ grade and the determination by all concerned that they will do so. Only then will the wonderful sculpture that exists in all rock be allowed to emerge. So the question is, for you as a school leader, do you have that belief and determination? If so, get your chisel out, a masterpiece awaits your liberating and empowering leadership.

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