Six Principles for Principals #2

In my previous post, I considered Benjamin Zander’s idea of being ‘fascinated’ by the hurdles that we encounter in striving to be an ‘A’ grade teacher / leader / learner. In this post, I extend the idea into my second principle for principals: living in to possibilities.

Professor Dylan Wiliam makes the simple point that the graphs of school improvement are, in large part, quite flat. The distance between the vast majority of schools is statistically quite slight.

Dylan Wiliam data

However, in order to track our progress along this somewhat flat gradient, we have resorted to creating additional ways to level our students and pupils to enable us to chart progress. The problem with this approach is that it is not consonant with the way in which children learn. Wiliam and Black were very clear when they worked so hard all those years ago to support our understanding of levels at ends of Key Stages. They said that at Year 2 a child should achieve Level 2 and at Year 6 a child should achieve Level 4. In between, they observed that children would progress at all sorts of different rates. So the process that we all invented of Year 4 pupils being a Level 3B etc etc were simply figments of our imaginations, much to the frustration of the Professors who had never intended us to do this with data and targets.

WIliam and Black

In the UK, we are just about to embark upon another journey with regard to our understanding of levels, in so far as our secretary of state has announced the demise of levels. Who knows what we will do to replace them, but it is sure to be something that we won’t get quite right as we struggle to shrug off the vestiges of levelling from times past. It seems to me that this issue is addressed by the focus within my second principle for principals. If we are to live in to possibilities, then we must be able to see that possibility.

why are you here

The problem is, with our jobs, that we are caught in the moment. Trapped by the unrelenting pressures that weigh in on us, that prevent us from seeing where we are going. We are caught in existential angst about our immediate impact and purpose. However, we all know that as leaders we must never lose sight of where we are going of course, but sometimes that can just be blurred and confused: we can’t see the destination clearly.

where are you going

And even if we can manage to keep sight of where we are heading to, bridging the gap so that we translate where we currently are and where we thought we were heading is all but impossible. This familiar situation is referred to many as being ‘caught in the moment’. Great leaders help others to break the hypnotic paralysis that is brought about by being caught in the moment, the tidal wave of unrelenting workload that makes ‘now’ feel like forever. So how do they break that hold? Through understanding the sunset.


There is something captivating about watching the sunset on the horizon. Have you ever done it? If not, try to this summer. Go somewhere quiet and allow yourself to be absorbed by it. Then you will experience the sensation of cognitive paralysis (but in a positive and peaceful way). What you will notice is that there comes a point, which great leaders bring about for their colleagues. A moment when the  ‘blip’ happens. One moment the sun was still there and then… it’s gone! The paralysis evaporates. Great leaders bring people to that moment to help them overcome the focus on the ‘moment’ that prevents progress towards their true purpose.


I always think of the journey that colleagues must go on in the contextualisation of their current experience within their longer term goals as akin to a diver returning slowly to the surface from a deep dive. In the depths of the ocean, the surface can be such a distant goal that it disappears from the diver’s vision. But when surfacing, the end goal is to reach the surface and to see how to get there the diver must assess how far to move from where he or she is currently. This is more than just breaking a problem down into bite sized chunks. Instead it is seeing every step from here as a constituent step towards the end goal. The diver is not just taking a step of 5 metres, is not just enjoying the journey, but is moving 5 metres towards the surface. So the journey as a whole is constantly in the diver’s mind.

Great leaders help their colleagues see everything they do within the context of this destination rather than becoming transfixed with the moment they are in.


One thought on “Six Principles for Principals #2

  1. Thought provoking Neil, thank you.
    I value reference to Martin Luther King’s speech in Finding Your Leadership Style by Keith Lamdin page 20-21. A leader describes a future that is an improvement on the present and this narrative captures your emotions. An effective leader never tires of telling the story, describing the vision, and enables us to keep reaching forwards to attain and to push that vision even further towards unattainable perfection. (Don’t be put off by the book, although it says a guide for ministers, the content is about leadership with vision and values)

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