Saturday, 11 July 2015

Gently does it...

There are many things to be learned from leadership courses, but in general I am not well suited to them. I have an exceptionally low tolerance of role-playing, team games, hot seating, card sorting and all that other stuff you are made to do to throw you ‘out of your comfort zone’. I have spent many hours half-heartedly throwing balls of paper at targets, drawing various diagrams and creating paperclip towers, but like many, I have always learned best from seeing, doing, making mistakes and putting them right. I have worked with brilliant leaders, terrible ones and others who were finding their way. When I first started my journey into school leadership, I desperately hoped that I would find the right role models and that they weren’t all the very similar, stereotypical ‘blokes in suits’ or ‘unapproachable women in twinsets’ that I kept encountering in my career.  As a relatively young female school leader (back then…), I wanted and needed to know that it was ok to have a gentler, more subtle approach to the whole thing and still be taken seriously.

It has therefore been my great fortune to have worked with some wonderful leaders of all varieties and they have all been hugely influential in how I have grown both personally and professionally. I can only hope to be like any one of them.  Right now though, my mind is very focused on one particular person who would probably never presume to think that she had influenced me at all.  Let me tell you about Jenny. 

Jenny is the person who has been my guide to so much that I would want to be as a leader. At the end of this school year, she will retire as a headteacher, having given her all and then some.  She has always taught, turning her hand to various subjects but mainly as an exceptional teacher of art and photography. She will continue to teach, she loves it too much to step away completely. However, I am sure that many others would join me in saying that perhaps her greatest teaching role has been incidental, that of living and breathing graceful, compassionate, moral, dutiful, robust leadership. All done with a cracking sense of humour, creative flair and quiet humility. 

What I have always admired most in Jenny is that she is herself, always.  She will agree or disagree and make her feelings known, she will ask the question that everyone else is trying hard to avoid. It will be done with care and consideration, but if it falls outside her understanding of what is absolutely right for her school, staff or students, then her tenacity and incisiveness will cut through any amount of smoke and mirrors.  Jenny has her own way of leading, never attempting to emulate that of other colleagues or leaders.  Hers is a calm, steady voice that doesn’t need to raise itself to be heard, because her reasoned, rational wisdom is something we all want to listen to.  There is no ‘flannel’, no artificial persona created to command power or respect, because there is no need for it. She has the knack of entrusting responsibility, stepping back, then asking the right questions at the right time to allow you to shine or to steer you back in the right direction. I have watched her give the over ambitious a mile just so that they can realise for themselves that they only ever wanted an inch, then support them through taking ever greater steps towards their goals.

One thing I really can’t do is ignore the fact that Jenny is, clearly, a woman.  In a world where I am sometimes wearied by being told to lean in/be fierce/speak up/roar as a female professional, it is truly my great fortune to have had a role model so relaxed and discerning with her own traits as a woman.  She can be the listener, the comforter, the lender of advice and the dispenser of hugs. She can be the owner of the demanding arched eyebrow, the softly-spoken yet razor-sharp inquisitor, the instigator of the difficult conversation, the gently nagging voice in your head.  Nobody wants to displease her or let her down, not out of fear, but because they know that she will take it upon herself to make things as they should be and you will feel that your loyalty to the collective mission has been tarnished. Forgiveness is immediate, but goodness me how you will work to make it up to her and give of your very best, just so you can look her in the eye again. 

I have shared tears of laughter, frustration, sadness and raw emotion with Jenny.  She held it together giving staff our OFSTED feedback, letting them know how highly we had all been praised, but it took one moment of eye contact for us both to be moved to tears by pride and relief.  She has delivered sad news of the illness and passing of staff and students, making it her personal business to keep in touch, visit and bring human compassion to their families way beyond the role of colleague or headteacher.  Her voice has cracked during many a speech, but she has never been too proud to just stop, breathe a while, then carry on.

On a very personal level, I couldn’t have asked for a better role model when it came to work-life balance.  Jenny encouraged us all to not eat ‘al desko’, always asked what we were doing at the weekend, often shared what she had been up to, teased us when we spoke of weekends chained to laptops or marking.  Above all else, in a school already incredibly family-friendly, she completely understood the value of supporting teachers with families.  How could we not want to give more and be better when we could do our jobs and get to go to the Christmas play or the awards assembly, stay home with our sick children or deal with family emergencies without being made to feel the external pressure of guilt? Likewise, those without families could earn their day at Glastonbury or their best mate's wedding by cannily being asked to do something in return for the good of the school.  They paid it back several times over, gladly.

In my case, with a husband in the Forces and away for almost a whole academic year, working full-time as a Deputy Head with a four year old would have driven me insane if it were not for Jenny’s support and outright knack for being eminently sensible.  No, the world will not end if you can’t deliver your Year 9 Options presentation because your son has been throwing up all day and wants his mum, not a babysitter.  It shall be dealt with and we shall speak of it no more.  When I told her that we had the opportunity for the experience of a lifetime as my husband had been offered a posting abroad, she simply said, “These are other people’s children, of course you must go.” There was no disapproving lecture about my career trajectory or leaving the school. Life is not a rehearsal.

No number of leadership courses could ever teach me any of these lessons in how to be a great leader; a great female leader; a great person who happens to be a female leader. One who is gladly followed, much loved and enormously respected by all.  I know that I don’t have to be anything other than myself, that understated is as good as shouting from the rooftops, that showing your humanity is exposing but powerful.  I know that I do not need to be part of a 'club', the most visible person in the room or concerned with the recognition of my peers. I know that it is ok to quietly listen while the ideas form in my mind then ask the questions that need to be asked. I also know that reaping your own rewards from a job done well and with care for others is a wonderful thing.

Jenny will be mortified that I wrote any of this, but deserves every word. Having been her colleague at various points in our careers, I am deeply honoured to know that she is also my friend. It will be my privilege to continue to learn from her.

“Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me. “

(extract from ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou)


  1. This is a stunning post, Rosanna - and thanks to Emma Kell for drawing my attention to it.

    We learn from role models all our lives, both negative (those who help us hone our thinking about what we WOULDN'T do were we in their position), and positive such as Jenny - who inspire us just by being their best selves. My only concern is when some (and, I have to say, it's more likely to be women) look at a leader like Jenny and say, "I couldn't be a head because I couldn't be her." Of course we wouldn't be her, we would be ourselves, but, encouraged and lifted by her example, hopefully our BEST selves....

    Thanks again for writing this.

    1. Thank you so much for your support and comments, Jill. I have been overwhelmed with the response I have had to this blog in such a short time, but glad that maybe someone out there will be inspired to do exactly what you say and be their best self as a leader.

  2. That is a fantastic blog, and wonderful to hear about such an inspirational leader, and all that she has done for you. :)

  3. Thank you so much, Sue. I can't believe how many people have read this but am glad that I have been able to share my tribute to Jenny with them!