‘To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.’ Soren Kierkegaard
We met with our headteachers a couple of weeks ago and ‘Have Courage’ was the theme of my reflection. Right now it’s a tough time being a school leader trying to be courageous.
I thanked people who had shown courage in small and big ways by:
-Coming alongside a colleague who is struggling
-Offering to support another school because their headteacher is ill.
-Offering to mentor a new headteacher or senior leader
-Making an unexpected visit with a gift just to check in on someone
-Providing extra support for one of our Business Managers
-Offering some SENCO support and time
I love the courageous words they used:
They said ‘What do you need?’ not ‘I don’t have time.’
They said ‘How can I help?’ not ‘what will you pay me?’
They said ‘Will that be enough?‘ not ‘I’m way too busy.’
We need courage right now because:
-Recruitment is hard at all levels
-Staff still need galvanising to keep pushing forwards beyond Covid (kids only get one chance)
-Planning how we support our high needs children with depleting resources is tough
-Unfunded pay rises is biting budgets
-Inexperienced leaders haven’t had to deal with national strikes
-We still need to invest in colleagues (it’s what we know improves teaching)
Courage is when we feel afraid, yet choose to act despite the fear. From David & Goliath to A Game of Thrones, we tell stories of bravery. We can all think of a situation when we felt afraid, yet chose to face our fear. Maybe public speaking, or speaking up in a meeting or challenging a boss, or planning for a strike day. If we note what we felt (underlying anxiety, butterflies), and what we said to ourselves (“If x can do it, then so can I”) and if we recognise when it was that the fear began to subside, all this becomes a narrative of how we might deal with future stress. Facing our fear can become fuel for the future.
But I think we misunderstand the real meaning of courage
Society has outdated notions of courage. It’s not just macho heroics storming into burning buildings or grabbing robbers on the street. Life helpfully provides us with daily examples of courageous acts, often accompanied by fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but our triumph over it.
What does courage look like right now for school leaders?
-Walking a school successfully through Covid
-Designing a bold plan for my high needs children
-Leading a difficult conversation clearly and with compassion
-Introducing an initiative my staff are unsure about
-Managing challenging families
-Committing to a team, professionally and personally
-Being vulnerable with colleagues you care about
-Taking on a school with lots of costs attached
I get incredible satisfaction from seeing colleagues develop and grow and tackle things they never thought they’d be able to handle. This is daily courage, facing what is in front of us while battling the imposter and perfectionist demons. Confidence is a set of skills we can master, and which help us become more courageous.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shows us how:
Our choices become our habits,
Our habits become a character, (and, as Heraclius said)
Our character becomes our destiny.
So when I am more fearful, I notice that each time I choose to step back from giving my time, or offering help, or being kind, I become less and less the kind of person who’s great to be around, and I lose the confidence to step forward and volunteer, or bring hope into situations.
Yet when I show more courage, when I make the decision to be a little more positive in the situation in front of me – when I decide to speak well of colleagues not present, when I praise them, when I offer help and give my time, before long this helps me feel a little more confident, and a more positive colleague with whom to work.
Proverbs reminds us, ‘fear and courage are brothers’. What begins with purposeful intention soon translates into our true nature. The choices we make and the things we do can actually change us. ‘Every time we choose courage,’ reminds Brené Brown, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.’
The Stockdale Paradox (described by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great) was named after James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate and Vietnam prisoner of war. Stockdale was held captive for over seven years, repeatedly tortured and had no reason to believe he’d make it out alive. He found a way to exist by accepting this grim reality, and balancing it with a sense of hope for the future: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Confronting difficult present reality while holding firm to the belief that you will prevail is paradoxical, yet this is true for most leaders who have had to battle through difficulty in order to survive. This is not the same as superficial optimism, as Stockdale explained:
“Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don’t understand.”
“The optimists were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ’we’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. They died of a broken heart.”
Courage is knowing the brutal facts, facing them, and still remaining hopeful. Courage is not blind optimism.
‘Life is difficult,’ is the opening line of M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled. We live in a period of pain when courage is needed more than ever: Covid created pain and uncertainty; parents struggled to balance remote work and homeschooling; headteachers kept schools open; teachers did the best they could; and now leaders face budgets in real terms way below what they were a decade ago; plus the pain and uncertainty of strikes.
And all the time the anxiety levels of school leaders are rising because of ‘the endless suffocating expectations that come with the job, the sleepless nights, the ‘can’t please everyone’ decisions, coupled with the desire to do well.’ (Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, at the C of E National Conference).
In public life we see chancellors who don’t pay their taxes and police who don’t protect women. So who do we trust? The most recent Ipsos Mori poll of the most and least trusted professions looks like this:
Top: Nurses 93%, Doctor 91%, Engineers 89%, Teachers 85%
Bottom: Advertising Executives 13%, Politicians 15%, Government Ministers 16%, Journalists 23%, Estate Agents 27%
(% share of British adults that trust people in these professions to tell the truth).
Of course we should expect better. Yet if you look back in history, there was never a rose-tinted political past. When people in the UK could not attend the funerals of loved ones during Covid, politicians were partying; when South Africa needed politicians to support Mandela, it took years before an Afrikaner leader would meet for talks; and the US never found a principled political leader to talk racial prejudice in the 1960s. It took people of individual courage.
So a defining characteristic of courage, in every generation, is the personal determination in the face of a failing society. Waiting for politicians prevents us being bold. Blaming them is lazy thinking, and tempts us to give up. Instead of this, people step forward, despite fear, with daily courage:
‘It’s not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to those into the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who dare greatly, whose place is never with those cold and timid souls (criticising from behind their screens) who know neither victory nor defeat.‘ Theodore Roosevelt
And there’s good news:
We know that school leaders have the skills to plan brilliantly, to build confidence, to galvanise, to encourage and empower, to train the next generation.
So while we know that: many staff feel divided by the prospect of strikes.
School leaders are skilled in: making difficult decisions based on honesty and integrity.
And the truth is: Good leaders are trusted by staff because they support in a way which is for the long term.
When we are feeling unsure what to do next, people trust good leaders to make the right call. Even when courage is the honesty to admit that we don’t have all the answers. Brené Brown again, ‘It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.‘ Courage understands that while x, y and z are difficult, and there are no obvious answers, we refuse to capitulate. Courage is knowing the brutal facts, facing them, and still remaining hopeful.
-Courage is when we bring hope to people who cannot see or feel it
-Courage is seeing beyond the current crisis and describing a future, a more hopeful destination
-Courage spends more time than most planning what that destination looks like and identifying the steps to take
-Courage is acknowledging the complexity of young people’s mental health and still stepping into that place
-Courage is understanding recruitment is a challenge AND SO thinking about what’s necessary for flourishing professionals
-Courage is charting the kind of curriculum that your disadvantaged children will find challenging and setting them up to succeed
-Courage is knowing that there are too few resources to support high needs children, but still makes bold plans on their behalf
-Courage is understanding that success is not linear, that you will know all the answers, but that your presence may just be the beginning of collective courage
In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell describes the courage of the underdog, saying they are not necessarily weak, because they have ‘the advantages of disadvantages.’ People ask, when faced with a Goliath-sized challenge, ‘should I persevere or should I give up?’ But giants are less impregnable than we think. The fact of being an underdog and drawing upon courage can change people in powerful ways. It can make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.
Our schools and our society needs courage like never before. And our school leaders are showing it.