The power of uncertainty for school leaders

I am writing this on the back of an article I read recently on The Guardian newspaper website which was entitled 'Prisoners are like CEOs - they're skilled at hiding low self-esteem' and for some reason this made me think of school leaders. The article was about a 'life coach' Clare McGregor who had spent most of her professional life working with CEOs, charity bosses and senior police officers. About five years ago she had taken a change of direction and had started working with prisoners in Styal women's prison in Cheshire. What she had identified was that both groups of clients were very skilled at hiding their low self-esteem and lack of confidence. 'Clients in prison can seem extremely confident, but that can be just a mask - just like people in the boardroom,' she noted. Again, I was reminded of myself and so many other school leaders I know, or have met, who harboured just the same uncertainties and lack of confidence about about their capacities and their roles at times, but who would be loath to admit it. They had also become very good at hiding, or masking these dips in confidence. A very experienced colleague, who had risen through the ranks of educational leadership, described it to me like this, 'I am always waiting to be found out.'

Let's face it, education has promoted and developed a culture for years where people have been discouraged from sharing their weaknesses or lack of confidence. This has been even more acute in regard to headteacher, principals and senior leaders. The headteacher or principal was seen as the pinnacle of the school-based hierarchy, and as the person expected to have all the answers and to know and understand everything that teachers, other staff, pupils and parent might encounter. Fortunately, we are little more enlightened and informed now and most of us understand the complete unreasonableness, and even the undesirability, of such lofty expectations. But there are still lots of schools and systems out there where school leaders, and others, sit in meetings, or lead meetings, and are not prepared to admit what they don't know or understand. It is still seen by many as a sign of weakness, or worse of trouble-making, for anyone to put their hand up and say 'sorry, I haven't a clue what you're talking about' or 'sorry, I am not fully understanding what it is you are saying,' or 'sorry, I don't know the answer to that.' Leaders are just as guilty of this as those they lead, and this is the result of a lack of confidence and trust, and is perhaps a reflection of a prevailing culture that mitigates against such openness.

Should we be concerned that school leaders are fallible, just like everyone else, and that they may be suffer from a lack of confidence and low self-esteem? Well yes we should, if as a result of these feelings they are unable to make a decision, to inspire those they lead, or to deal with all the competing and demanding aspects of their role. But, I actually think we need a level of self-doubt and questioning about our performance as leaders, if we are to lead in a way that takes people with us and allows all to flourish. Imagine the leader with no self-doubt, high self-esteem, and who sees themselves as the infallible font of all knowledge and the director of all actions. Would you really like to work for that person? I suspect they would be a nightmare, and I have met a few delude individuals like this, both in education and outside. I suspect such a leader might not score highly on emotional intelligence, and fail to see any reason why they should. They would 'not suffer fools gladly' (a phrase I hate!) and the 'fools' would be the ones who didn't agree entirely with them, or do exactly as directed by them. High-esteem and an absence of self-doubt are only a few short steps from dictatorship and megalomania in my book and we should be wary of the superconfident leader who actually believes in their super confidence and omnipotence. What we need are leaders who can display confidence and act when necessary, but who recognise they might not get it right all the time. Who recognise they will make mistakes, see that they do not need to know all of the answers, but who able to solve problems by tapping into the skills and expertise of those around them. Leaders who are prepared to admit and expose their vulnaribilties at times, because they also recognise themselves as  models for the behaviours they are looking to develop in those they lead. If the people you lead think it's is unsafe to admit what they don't know or understand then you have a closed and very unhealthy culture that is unlikely to promote growth in individuals or the organisation. Leaders need to identify the power of collaboration for themselves and those they lead, and recognise that by creating networks they are developing systems to help themselves and others.

I think we need  many qualities to be high performing school leaders, and perhaps one of the most important is self-doubt and questioning. Having those checks and balances protects ourselves, and others, from the excesses and challenges of leadership, and helps us remain human and realistic in our  expectations of ourselves and of those we lead.


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