Being an executive or senior leader at a school, federation or MAT can be an exhilarating, but enormously challenging gig.
I’ve been there myself – from assistant head, to headteacher, to executive head and eventually Director of Education at a MAT, I’ve loved (nearly!) every moment of being able to change children’s and young people’s lives, as well as getting to develop and empower my teams to become the best forms of themselves.
But being a leader is a huge responsibility. You’re ultimately being paid to make the very best decisions you can for those in your care, which comes with the obligation to ensure that you’re in the best possible physical and mental shape to do so.
Schools are, rightly, incredibly vibrant and busy environments. As a leader, you walk the corridors, set the standards and invest time daily in the children, young people and adults in your care. Too often, however, leaders find themselves grappling with pressing challenges and big ideas of the moment during their own time.
One headteacher recently described this thought process to me as like having a ‘popcorn brain’: a mind that’s always on go, churning over challenges, problems and next steps during moments when, as a human being, you should be switching off (in the shower, cooking the dinner, watching television, when sleeping) and conserving your mental energies for those important decisions.
How, then, can you find the ‘head space’ within the working day to resolve those urgent problems, reflect on your understanding, build resilience and drive yourself forward? In this area, one form of professional development stands head and shoulders above the rest – Action Learning.
I expect some readers will be familiar with the concept of Action Learning sets. A group of six to eight leaders from across a range of different schools comes together, supported by an expert facilitator, to solve complex, real-life leadership problems. Critically, these will be individuals with the same hierarchical position, who therefore jointly understand the role and its responsibilities.
Meeting together every six weeks in a venue away from distractions, they will form a trusting, non-judgemental and confidential coaching space. Taking it in turns, they present the biggest leadership issue they’re grappling with, and the group uses questioning, with the facilitator’s support, to help the individual find a way forward. Each leader will then ultimately walk away with actions, solutions and an increased sense of working wellness.
Sounds simple, right? Yet there are a number of factors that make this approach an extremely powerful one for increasing the resilience, greatness and overall impact of leaders.
1. Leadership is an art
Consider some of the world’s greatest artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. One thing they all have in common is that they transformed themselves over time – not by measuring themselves against their single greatest public success, but against their inner desire to be the best forms of themselves. Action Learning provides an opportunity for leaders step outside of their problems and examine them through different eyes. Via the challenges presented by members and leadership models offered by the facilitator, members learn lifelong strategies for looking at leadership problems and turning them into solutions. The groups are places in which to think, rather than be told; a place where members can refine and define the kind of leaders they want to be.
2. Imposter? where?
How often in your leadership career have you lain awake wondering what to do about that one problem that just won’t resolve itself? As Freud put it, the nature of human beings is that at some point they’ll ask themselves whether the problem was their fault, if they could have dealt with it better, or worse, if they even have the capacity to fix it.
Whether this sense of imposter syndrome lasts for a fleeting second or what feels like a lifetime, it won’t see you operating at your best. Action Learning uses principles of positive psychology, derived from the work of Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to enable group members to unlearn self-destructive behaviours and instead learn strategies for focusing on objective solutions.
3. You can put your armour down
We live in a competitive world where it’s not good enough to be average, and where everyone is striving to be the best. That’s a tough gig for any leader, and we all need the chance put down our armour – that steely exterior that prevents others from seeing the things we’re grappling with. In an Action Learning set, members will commit to giving each other objective, solution-focused challenge and support. There’s no judgement, no competition and no winners. It’s a confidential and safe space outside of home where you can be who you really are.
4. Restore resilience
In her 2018 book Dare to Lead, research professor Brené Brown states that leaders must “Learn to rise”; that when things get tough or leaders make mistakes, they should have the ability to get back up and continue onwards with their vision and mission. In practice, of course, this isn’t an easy skill to develop. While some leaders may get up and get on quite happily, self-doubt can remain in place for many, to the point where it becomes limiting.
Through Action Learning, group members will soon learn that the type of things which keep them awake at night are also things that give others restless nights too. In that moment of realisation it becomes easier to rise, since you can rationalise that you’re not alone.
5. Drive outcomes and impact
Action Learning set group members are a focused bunch. No one has any time to waste – they’re in the room to find solutions and move forward, and don’t want to be involved in CPD that lacks punch. Via careful coaching of each individual dilemma, the group will enable each other to look at their challenges with six different pairs of eyes. Magic happens – where previously you may have only seen one or two potential options, now a range of possibilities and choices reveal themselves. Leaders realise that there’s more than one way of moving forward. What’s more, between sessions they now have a network of trusted peers that they can call on for advice.
6. Pay it forward
Action Learning can transform how you lead your teams. Before becoming a member, you’ll have been a giver of answers. As a leader, you’ll have developed an encyclopaedic understanding of how to tackle any school- or MAT-level scenario, and imparted this wisdom to your team as and when required. Through Action Learning, however, you’ll internalise a set of rich coaching skills that can help change the way you speak to and empower your team, eventually enabling them to become the best forms of themselves in turn.
For 15 years I’ve been facilitating Action Learning groups with the specific aim of helping to develop the leadership skills, behaviours and styles of senior and executive leaders. The opportunity to open up and share (often common) experiences in the presence of a skilled facilitator is both powerful and transformational. Action Learning can’t make you a great leader, but it can greatly increase your potential to become one.
The principles of action learning sets
1. New behaviours ‘stick’ when we quickly transfer what we learn into practice.
2. We learn best when the learning links to our real-life situations.
3. Professional development has a greater impact on performance when we chose to become involved in it, and it’s personalised to us.
4. Applying coaching strategies in the workplace helps empower the thinking and behaviours of team members in our care.
5. Everyone wants to get something done, thus making walking away with actions and solutions central to the exercise.
6. The wellbeing benefits of Action Learning include increased self-awareness, greater confidence, a willingness to take the initiative and a sense of not being alone.
Katherine Powell is a leadership consultant, Action Learning facilitator and executive coach