We love a good quote in our profession. The quotes that you choose can say a lot about your expectations, your views and who you may align with. Often these leaders and inspirations will be conventional. When I say that, I mean that there will be a nobility and integrity about these people already within the profession. It makes sense that behind each quote, there is someone who represents something dignified. But what if your chosen leadership icons are not so conventional, or they derive from somewhere other than googled inspiration?
When I got my first headship, I was inevitably overwhelmed with excitement, but also with worry. It's just the scale of the job that can do this to you. I felt the same when I had my children. I drove home from the hospital on those cold and quiet nights, worrying whether or not I was capable of fatherhood. When you commit to pursuing headship, you can never quite appreciate how it may feel until you actually land the job. At this point, you need to find some assurances, to reduce worry and to define how you want to proceed.
'They say Rome wasn't built in a day, but I wasn't on that particular job.'
To minimise anxiety, I tried to think about how I viewed the size of the job. I was seeking reassurance and trying to appreciate that I cannot do everything at once, that it will all take time, and that I have the job because I have earned it. If I were to spend every moment thinking about my responsibilities, I would not be able to sleep.
My office was pretty conventional. It was well positioned and roomy, and it reflected the fact that I needed a fair space to work because the job would often be demanding. I began to nest and shuffled the furniture to create the right workspace. Then I popped online and ordered a large photograph of Brian Clough.
I'm a big football fan, but that's not why I ordered this photo. When it landed, I took an old frame, put the picture inside and placed it pride of place on the trophy cabinet. I liked that trophy cabinet, it was a bit old school. Full of artefacts and achievements. The picture looked fantastic. A young Brian Clough looking assured and charming, well before his major achievements and with a knowing smirk that would indicate that he had no doubt that he could succeed.
There was a clear reason why I chose him. It would not have been quite so fitting for me to have Nelson Mandela or even Mohammed Ali. I had loved Brian Clough since being a boy and as I grew older, and my footballing idols changed, he would fascinate me for other reasons.
But it was really all about the humour. The intention of putting Cloughie up, was to tell myself that there would sometimes need to be smoke and mirrors whilst I gained the confidence to tackle the job in hand. I think that these moments of insecurity can sometimes be referred to as 'imposter syndrome'. The irony of acquiring such a respectable job and then seeking leadership inspiration from the common man seemed both well-suited and profound to me.
'Come and see my coaching certificates - they're called the European Cup and league championships.'
It was also a lovely talking point for the grown ups whilst the children all asked if he was my Dad. I could see visitors enter the room, spot the photo and pause to think about it. I met people who knew him and another who knew his family. People who loved his achievements and laughed about his eccentricities, sometimes in the midst of big meetings. One particular morning, I walked in and there were two young lads in the office. They were PAT testing my electrical equipment. As always, Cloughie became a starting point for some early morning chat. It turned out that the lads were from Nottingham, and that one in particular was a big Nottingham Forest fan. We talked about Cloughie and the team for a short while before he headed off into the corridors. About an hour later they had finished and moved on. When I returned my office, carefully placed there on my diary, was a shiny, brass Nottingham Forest pin-badge. I had never met this person before and would never meet him again.
And so it's good to think carefully about where your inspiration can come from and how this shape who you are and how you think. I can't do what Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa did, but I can succeed in adversity. I can give my all to my community. It's fair to say that there were characteristics that I liked about Brian Clough and also other behaviours that served to remind me how not to lead.
Brian Clough was a champion for the underdog. He was honest, flawed and difficult, but he never changed his position and he never compromised on his vision. If anyone would be bold enough to declare that something could not be done, he would be the one to prove them wrong, regardless of the odds. I feel the same way. To work in a school where so many children may not be expected to succeed drives me like nothing else. After all, a headteacher's job is to bring pride and hope to your staff, families and children.
Like fatherhood, headship is a big job. You have to generate your own confidence, avoid futile worry, and you have to try and make sure that you never take yourself too seriously.
'If I had an argument with a player we would sit down for twenty minutes, talk about it and then decide I was right.'
The WIN / WIN
For me, this was a safety net. A statement to say that I would give the job my best shot, and if it didn't work out then I had subconsciously avoided ruining my self-regard. At the same time, there's something lovely about bringing humour to a place of serious business. It doesn't mean that you're any less committed, it just means that your personality is an integral part of the process. Alternatively, I could have chosen the same stock quotes, aspired to achieve great things whilst possibly lacking self-awareness. It's good to be human, personable and fun whenever possible. It's good to recognise your vulnerabilities. If you are perceived to have high too much regard for yourself and your own position, it may well all come tumbling down. Your sense of humility needs to be both secure and explicit.
There's no doubt that leadership should always be taken seriously, but it should also be said that it should never be taken personally.
It worked for me. From the day that I put the picture up to the day that I took it down, I felt that people could find out something about me. We often laughed about it and about Clough, but nobody ever criticised or asked me to take the picture down. I expected that at some point over the twelve years, that someone would tell me that it was inappropriate, but it never happened. I think it brought likability to my leadership.
Headteachers are well placed if they can relate to their community. You can be the nicest person in the world or even the best leader, but if you're not a good fit, it's going to be hard. Our families knew what I stood for and who I was. I learned in the classroom that great teachers can give themselves away to their children. This means that they are happy to expose elements of who they are in the interest of creating the right relationships. It's the same at the most senior level. Your families need to connect with you if you are going to gain trust and successfully manage the ups and downs of the school journey. This can only happen if you offer them something to connect to. It could be a picture, a comment in the newsletter or any other insight that you choose to offer.