Opening the wardrobe door

One of the aspects of my coaching of senior leaders that many coachees report that they find particularly helpful is the identification (and subsequent challenge) of their assumptions. We all hold many assumptions – in fact we have to hold these, in order to function, because imagine how life would descend quickly into paralysis if we couldn’t operate at least some of the time on automatic. These assumptions, however, can become barriers to action, when, for example, we assume that we can’t do something which – if we did it – could transform our lives and/or the lives of others. One of my favourite coaching questions is ‘why not?’ … and it is remarkable what can happen when you dig down into that question. I have lost count of the number of leaders who have realised that the only thing holding them back from what they really want to do is a set of conquerable assumptions.

So I particularly enjoyed reading an anecdote in the motivational book on team-working and self-leadership by Ben Hunt-Davies and Harriet Beveridge, ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’ which reinforced this approach, and which I thought was worth sharing. The book itself – which I learned about from a coachee, to whom I am very grateful – is based around the experience of one of the authors, who rowed as part of the victorious British men’s rowing eight in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and it is a readable and well-structured mixture of narrative and learnings, translated into strategies to help the reader reach their personal or professional goals.

In particular anecdote, generously shared by a colleague of one of the authors, this colleague relates how excited he was to be staying the night at a luxury hotel. When he arrived in his room, however, he was disappointed to find that it was very underwhelming, with a single bed and a small television. After a rather uncomfortable night, he wakes up in the morning and decides to open what he thought was the wardrobe door, to find that it opened into a luxury bedroom; he had been sleeping in the children’s annexe of a family suite. The message of this anecdote, of course – and the whole chapter – is that we should not be held back by what we perceive as the limitations around us, and that we should push the boundaries, metaphorically (or in this case physically), pushing at the wardrobe door. If we don’t think we can, we won’t, of course, and so this is where we must start – with a spirit of adventure, questioning and the combination of relentless curiosity and determination that seems to underpin the success of so many human beings throughout the ages.

I know I enjoyed this anecdote especially because of the connection I made in my head to the wardrobe door that leads to Narnia in CS Lewis’s powerful and captivating allegorical tale, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, which was a guiding star in my own childhood (and still is, in fact, in many ways); this simply made the anecdote more delicious, and imbued it with greater depth, reinforcing its message yet more strongly, and prompting me even more to share it, because opening the wardrobe door is not simply in order to pursue personal opportunity. Rather, it has an underpinning moral purpose, because when we make the most of the opportunities open to us, and when we challenge the assumptions that hold us back in this regard, then we are more able to create the positive impact on the world around us that the world needs us to have.

Anyway, the message is clear … the question now is simply this: which wardrobe door you will open today?

Listening to what we say about ourselves

I really enjoyed contributing last week to the BSME January conference for Leaders and Aspiring Leaders in British curriculum schools in the Middle East – what a keen and engaged bunch of professionals! And it was super to see so many of them in the (virtual) room! I came away feeling really quite uplifted at the thought that this kind of commitment and openness to development would be driving learning and understanding for the next generation of young adults.

I was presenting on how to lead a team effectively in practice, building on Deniece Wheeler’s comprehensive presentation about the theory of team building, and I had 3 main messages – first, know yourself and your team; secondly, make sure you appreciate the roles you each have to play in your team, and thirdly, keep growing and practising together. Of these 3 points, it is the first on which I have been musing recently, and I want to explore an aspect of this self-knowledge a little more here.

One of the observations that strikes me repeatedly in my coaching is how much people communicate about themselves without really thinking about it, through the language they use. I hear sometimes people switch from ‘will’ to ‘would’, or from the active voice to the passive voice, both of which might suggest a sense of lack of agency. I hear fluctuations in intonation, and I hear people swiftly skipping over something which, when I bring them back to it, can often turn out to be really significant. Not all communication is verbal, of course – far from it! – but language enables us to identify and transmit nuanced understandings to other human beings, and as such, arguably it behoves us to think carefully about what we are doing when we use it.

One of the most common gaps I have identified in team communication over the past few years, working with hundreds of leaders, is the gap caused by leaders not articulating clearly enough who they are, and how they lead – a gap exacerbated by team members failing to do the same. It is a gap often filled by – sometimes very unhelpful or misleading – assumptions or projections. To put it in other words, if we are not careful, we can end up muddling through in our relationships with our teams, congratulating ourselves that we really understand everyone, whereas in fact we may have some glaring blind spots which, quite simply, we do not recognise are leading us astray.

How can we improve our acuity of insight and become more acutely self-aware, as well as aware of who those around us really are? Well, the obvious answer is to work with a coach – a trained professional who will not be afraid to notice, challenge and highlight to you what you are saying, as a precursor to helping you own and/or reframe it, depending on what you identify that you need to do with it. At the very least, however, start by becoming more self-aware. Think about phrases that you use all the time, and analyse them – what are you really communicating as you use them? How would they land with those around you? Notice your language more; pause and think before you speak, and reflect afterwards. And spend time delving down into yourself: who are you as a leader? What drives you? What brings you satisfaction?

Life is a journey of self-awareness, in service – I believe, at least – of the greater good. And it is too short to waste any moment of it! So … get reflecting …

Legacy and lessons for leadership

An enormous thank you to my senior coachee who recently presented me with ‘Legacy’, James Kerr’s 2013 book (reissued in 2020) on the culture and practices of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. It was a fascinating read, and well worth indulging yourself in over Christmas if you would like an uplifting yet grounding reminder of the fundamental role that values have to play in leadership and effective teamwork in organisations. Humility, authenticity, sacrifice, putting the team before yourself … all of these have key parts to play in this, and as leaders, it is always good to reinvigorate ourselves with core messages we already know, but on which we ought regularly to focus explicitly.

One particular aside in the book caught my attention, and felt worthy of drawing out for further reflection. Chapter 7 – Expectations – is all about the stories we experience, and the stories we tell ourselves, and, as an avid proponent of leaders creating stories for themselves and those around them, this resonated strongly with me. I was therefore (very pertinently, as you will see) primed to be fascinated by the inclusion of a reference to John Bargh’s 1996 social psychology experiment on how words affect our responses to the world – also known as ‘priming’ (hence the pertinence mentioned above). It is also known as ‘the Florida Effect’, named after the inclusion of the word ‘Florida’ in the list of words referencing the negatives of aging which impacted on how subjects walked down a corridor (ie more slowly than those who had not heard those words).

Primed or not, though, I loved being reminded of the power of words to affect how we conduct ourselves – in every aspect of our lives, and not just in our leadership. Words have deep, rich layers of understanding embedded in them that – when we do not challenge them, and understand from whence they have been derived – can slip unconscious biases into our minds and our actions. One of the exercises I do when I work with coachees on the results of their Thomas International Personal Profile Analysis (PPA) is to challenge them to recognise their emotional reaction to the words that jump out at them, in order to explore first why they might not like them, and then how they might own them. It is always so interesting to unearth what words mean to people, and why, ie to see how the meanings of words have been shaped through their experiences. Upon understanding how their actions are subsequently shaped by these words and their embedded meanings, the next step is then to write an alternative, clearer, sharper narrative. If words affect how we walk down a corridor, then let us choose how to undertake the walk, and pick the words that surround us accordingly.

Words are powerful and dynamic creatures which impact us in all that we do … my message for today is to embrace and rise to the challenge of interpretation that they pose! Let no word go unchallenged today …

Doing, reflecting, and being grateful in Dubai

I haven’t written a blog for several weeks, because my time and inspiration has been directed elsewhere, to a range of demanding but satisfying projects and commitments – including for the Boards of which I am a member, international leader recruitment with LSC Education for a range of schools from Armenia to Switzerland, and coaching of some phenomenal senior leaders across the globe – but a lunch today with a friend and colleague, fellow LSC coach Caz Jude, at the delectable Lime Tree café in Dubai (where I am for a few days, to speak at GESS Dubai and visit some school leaders), reminded me how important it is to be visibly grateful for what we have in our lives, so I am taking the time to write this now, as a way of saying thank you.

First, I am grateful and want to say thank you to all the people in my life. There are literally thousands of you, and so I hesitate to name anyone, for fear of offending through omission. I only hope that you read this, and know that I am grateful for you. You include of course my family, my coachees, my colleagues and former colleagues, my interviewees, my former pupils, my neighbours … and please interpret this list of categories broadly, because if we have met and engaged, then we have a relationship, and I am grateful for this. The list even includes the lovely staff at the Staybridge Suites in Dubai, where I am staying again, because they have been so helpful and kind. And a cheery smile goes a LONG way in making the world a better place. Thank you to all of you for the richness you bring to my life, and the energy and encouragement you give me to keep striving to do more for others.

Secondly, I am grateful for the world in which we live. Yesterday, I visited the Museum of the Future, and one of the sections of it looks down on the world from space, and imagines how we could help the world through innovative energy solutions; we have a very precious and beautiful planet, and this means that we need to look after it as best we can. Every little action can make a difference. Most importantly, we should not take it for granted. COP 27 should be on all our minds, but we should also aim to respect the environment around us at all times.

And thirdly, I am grateful that as human beings we have been created with an indomitable spirit. It never ceases to amaze (and gladden) me that human beings have the most enormous capacity to find solutions to seemingly impossible challenges, particularly when they work together with kindness, love, and a better future. If we are to release this in ourselves and others, then we have to work on ourselves first, of course, and learn to make the most of the gifts and talents we have … and we have to be kind to ourselves when sometimes the constraints of life get in the way of our goals … but when we do, we can achieve SO much for the greater good.

I am incredibly grateful for all of the above, and more. Thank you to you all! And onwards and upwards!

“Service and Dignity” – The Queen’s abiding legacy

I learned of The Queen’s death in a Board meeting on Thursday 8 September, as the news flashed up on my phone, and I confess to having spent the best part of the past few days in a mournful mode, as the impact has hit of the loss which we have collectively experienced. Her Majesty The Queen was a phenomenal woman, who had (as has been brought home to us all) an astonishing impact on the world, through her commitment to tirelessly carrying out her duties. Her death, although feared and yet anticipated for so long, was nonetheless a shock to us all through its suddenness, and I know from speaking to countless friends and colleagues across the world that I am not alone. Sadness now permeates our interactions; grief lurks under the surface.

Flowers at Holyrood Palace on Saturday 10 September 2022

Of course, there is a re-commitment to the future too – King Charles III has stepped into the role of monarch, and has taken on the mantle of his extraordinary mother. How lucky we are, in so many respects, to be alive at the moment in history, at the birth of a new era, even though we know that this comes at the deep cost of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever people think or feel about the concept of a monarchy, there can be no denying that our constitutional monarchy has the ability to speak to people, and bring people together in ways that are deeply powerful and deeply sustaining.

It was the words of the (new) Prince of Wales on Saturday 10 September that struck a powerful chord, however, and prompted me to write this blog. In paying tribute to his beloved grandmother, he thanked her for providing an example to his generation – and, arguably, all generations. This example, for him, was one of “service and dignity” … and these words reflected so exactly what his grandmother embodied that we should dwell on them, and not let them slip away unnoticed. Serving others, caring about others, seeking to make a difference through action to the lives of others – and, sustained by her faith, doing so in a truly dignified manner, rising determinedly and relentlessly above the inevitable slings, arrows and tragedies of life … this was, in essence, what The Queen did. She was an incredible role model in her service, and in her dignity.

“Grief is the price we pay for love”: so said our late Queen, and we loved her for it; let us grieve for now, and re-commit to loving more, in every aspect of our lives, and with all of those around us. And let us do so with a renewed commitment to serving others, and to conducting ourselves with dignity. What a tribute to The Queen and her legacy this would be.     

Boom, Boom, Basil! Joy and laughter on the Fringe

I really had forgotten until this week just what it felt like to experience the sheer joy and exuberance of the Edinburgh Fringe. As a family, we were regular attenders up to and including 2019, throwing ourselves into the unexpected and extraordinary variety of shows; Covid put a stop to that. Admittedly, this past week I have still felt twinges of anxiety in crowds, and I flinch when I hear a cough … these are merely minor hurdles to overcome, however, in order to bathe and delight in what must be the most amazing and extensive Arts Festival in the world, which bursts at the seams with acts from circus to Shakespeare, and from comedy to powerful drama.

My favourite act so far? Forgive me for the silliness, but it is none less than the feisty, irreverent, charming, outrageous wonder that is Basil Brush! If he was a part of your childhood TV viewing, then you will already know from the title of this piece that he was the subject, because ‘Boom Boom’ was – and is – his catchphrase. He has 2 shows at the Fringe, in fact – a family fun show and a later ‘unleashed’ show. In a excess of enthusiasm, I saw both – and laughed at the outrageousness of both. Such fun! Such joy! Such laughter! And sharing it with others was wonderful!

Basil Brush celebrates 60 years in show business this year, and is working with his 8th ‘Mister’ – the sidekick who shares the stage with him. Poignantly, he paid tribute in his adult show to all of them, including the late Derek Fowlds; without their help, after all (and without the support of his hidden ‘assistant’), he would not be able to do what he does. He is going strong, and the chances are that he will be going strong – just regularly refurbished – long after you and I have all passed on. Another poignancy there, perhaps … and another reminder, were it needed, for us to make the most of every day.

Let us fill the world with joy and laughter whenever we can; release yourself today … and channel your inner Basil Brush!

Forwarding to the future in education

I was delighted to be invited to the inaugural Future Fwd conference in Warwick at the beginning of July – 2 days of in-depth reflection on what is really needed in education, with strands led by innovative thinkers in tech and gaming, business, the creative arts, curriculum and entrepreneurship. The conference – a collaboration between Warwick Schools Foundation and the University of Warwick, with a number of other great supporters – combined opportunities to learn about what was happening in a range of fields, as well as to meet, converse and share ideas with various movers and shakers in the realm of education and beyond.

What emerged was different for everyone, I am sure, although we will be able to read more about the collective findings in due course, as a white paper is due to emerge from the discussions in the round table sessions on the second day. For me, it prompted (and cemented) various thoughts about the way in which I think we might, as a society, have become so fixated on the pre-eminence of consistency in educational processes such as curriculum, examinations etc, that we have in many cases relegated individual, creative, ‘out of the box’, pioneering thinking to the sidelines. I know there are many amazing examples of creativity and entrepreneurship happening in schools, and I certainly don’t want to dismiss these in any way, because they are wonderful to see; when we step back from our entire educational system, however, who amongst us can genuinely say that it does all it could do for the individuals who are supposed to be nurtured and developed by it?

This is not the fault of teachers – great teachers on the whole, in my experience, love to think creatively, and certainly are driven by wanting to respond to the needs of the child in front of them. Too often – almost always! – however, they cannot do this because of the constraints under which they are placed, including limitations of time, resource and expectations of performance. Not only teachers, in fact, but school leaders too; the pressures of school performance and the expectations of external bodies are immense. Inspections of schools, for example, are more rigorous and, in many ways, narrower than ever before. We live in a society where soundbites rule, and where the word ‘failure’, or ‘standard not met’ is seen as a condemnation, rather than as an invitation to grow and improve.

Consistency is not a bad thing per se, and it underpins equality of opportunity … when this consistency drives towards the lowest common denominator, however, and requires vast amounts of precious time in order to deliver it, it is of little surprise that the offering to our children is sparser than they really deserve. Our educational – and social – ecosystem is so immensely complex, as indeed are our children and young people, that our drive for consistency (despite its positive intentions) is perhaps not serving any of as well as it could be. How do we achieve equity in educational opportunity rather than consistency? What could or should that look like?      

Fundamentally, the Future Fwd conference was a call to action – and this starts with deeper questions. I don’t know the answers – I don’t yet know all the questions, in fact; I do, know, though, that our children and young people deserve an amazing education that empowers and enables them, because this is how they will lead fulfilling lives, and how they will contribute to making the world a better place.

How do YOU think we should do this …?

“You wouldn’t be such a good coach if everything had always gone right for you”

Sitting in the warm sun outside a café in North Parade in Oxford on Friday afternoon last week, sipping tea with a friend and colleague in education, and reflecting on how we had both come to be where we were, we ruminated upon the imperative that exists to ensure that leaders in education have their own coaches. School Principals and senior leaders are having such a hard time at the moment, from exams to inspections, and from the wellbeing crisis, to the increasingly impossible tasks thrust upon them by society, and I find it a privilege to support (and challenge …) a selection of senior leaders across the world. My companion then uttered some wise words … “Helen”, she said, “I’d like to speculate that you wouldn’t be such a good coach if everything had always gone right for you”.

And she was absolutely right! I definitely did not find everything easy or straightforward in school leadership, nor has it always been easy or straightforward since I moved from school leadership into my portfolio career, in which I balance coaching, advising, non-executive roles and all the other amazing challenges which life presents. All of the challenges I have faced, however, have given me greater insights and understanding, and developed in me a greater humility, empathy and determination. Bumps and bruises are very effective teachers; we need to be knocked down at times so that we can experience what it is to get back up again. Muscles grow because we tear them; scars are beautiful signs of experience, not imperfections.

Bill Clinton once said “If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.” This is an astute observation, and sound advice for all educators, because in education, we are driven by ensuring that the next generation is brim-full of better people; we know that when we lead by example, we have an impact as leaders, and we need to model how to handle adversity. Never quitting, picking ourselves up, bouncing back with dignity … ah, what a lesson for us to take on board!

Wise words on an Oxford afternoon … now, bring on the week and month ahead!

Looking out for our turtles

Browsing Twitter on Sunday morning, ahead of the COBIS conference, I came across a video of a turtle struggling on its back. I can’t find the original source, or I would credit it, but seeing the number of views of the video clip, I think there is a fair chance that you have seen the video and can shed some light on this, especially as I saw the video in a number of different feeds.

In the video, a turtle flaps around on its back in a shallow pool, going round and round in circles as it struggles to right itself. A number of other turtles are nearby, and up to this point were just swimming around in a very turtle-like fashion – which always appears relaxed and a little random (although who are we to know what turtles are actually thinking, and what guides their movements?). Once the distress of the turtle becomes clear, however, the nearby turtles converge on the position of their suffering acquaintance, and combine to form a supportive wall which, with a few nudges, enables the turtle to be flipped back over on to its front, and return to its swimming.

The turtle being returned to normal

In one of the feeds, the video was accompanied by the hashtag #KindnessMatters, and I thought this was a beautiful way to caption the metaphor inspired by these turtles. I don’t know if turtles can be kind or not, but they certainly made a difference through their actions. They spotted another turtle in distress, they came together – it took more than one turtle to form the wall – and then they acted thereby saving the turtle in distress. When others are in distress, we need to step up and form part of their protective wall; when we are in distress, we need to find our fellow turtles.

An uplifting model upon which to reflect as we start another week. Onwards and upwards!

‘no one is talking about this’

I spent part of my weekend reading a book I had been given for Christmas, and for which I just hadn’t found time or focus until now – Patricia Lockwood’s ‘no one is talking about this’. I won’t spoil the story, but – emerging from the whirlwind of the experience – I recommend it. It is not an easy read, though, and is probably compelling and repelling in equal measure, certainly to begin with. It flows through the world of the internet – the ‘portal’ – and the confusing, affirming, repulsive, attracting, all-consuming content of the messages therein. Where they clash – and fuse – with ‘real’ life is where the novel (Lockwood’s debut novel) finds its feet.

I treated myself to discipline and openness when I read this book – it was a gift, and I deliberately did not read about it, or prepare myself in advance through research … so much of what we do in life is expected and anticipated, and it can be refreshing to – quite simply – not know what is going to happen. As a result, the book hit me between the eyes, causing me to reel and totter, not always knowing where it was heading, but – as I breathed in its deliberate adeptness and at times astonishingly juxtapositional vocabulary – evolving a sense of emerging perhaps-ness, which arguably transmuted into purpose…

It is really hard to write about the details without spoiling the story, and so I shall not do so! I wanted to share, however, my euphoria at the bewilderment born of creative dislocation, of the use of words which floated, seeded, bounced and rebounded … the joy and terror of language made visible on the page… the joy and terror of not knowing what the next page would hold … what a way to spend a weekend!

Now, of course, being me, I will go away and read more about the author and her work, and I will – again, of course – have to re-read the book with a different, more pre-loaded, knowledgeable lens. In fact, I am ahead even of myself; I have just been reading about her experimental and dislocating prose and poetry, and marvelling at it.

Bathing in the creativity of other human beings is sometimes just the tonic we all need. What amazing beings, we human beings can be …