Nick Dennis' Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: leadership

‘Stay on the f**king bus’

I originally came across the ‘Helsinki Bus Station Theory’ earlier this year and was struck by a number of key ideas from Arno Minkkinen’s commencement speech. Rather than summarise it myself, I’ll use Oliver Burkeman’s version from the Guardian:

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

What hooked me at the time, and still does, is its relevance to teaching by challenging what has become a maxim and revealing a proclivity towards the ‘new’ that can be detrimental to doing great work with students and colleagues. The precept it challenges is that feedback is useful. With the work of Hattie, Berger (and many others before) now becoming a normal part of discourse when discussing education and professional development for teachers,  it seems that sometimes we forget to explain that it is the quality of the feedback that matters, especially in a world of RTs, ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’.  The kind of feedback we wish for our students can be missed or in extreme cases replaced by  these tiny affirmations.  As useful and helpful as these comments may be in certain contexts, they can represent feedback of the most tenuous kind (I often think about the hopefuls in televised singing contests when they are faced with the unvarnished feedback that they are not as good as they have been led to believe by family/friends in their desire to be supportive). Consequently, emboldened by these recommendations, the blogs/writing/books/talks proliferate. For every instance of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ there  lurks the spectre of ‘groupthink’.

According to Burkeman, the second aspect the metaphor illustrates is our propensity to ‘fetishise originality’. In education, this may be a new turn of phrase, a new technology, a new blog post or even a new book. The cost of chasing these new ideas, essentially taking the taxi back to the station and taking another bus, means that you will delay your progress in becoming the great, effective educator you hope to be. I was reminded of the consequences of keeping to the same route when I saw the project Dale Banham and Russell Hall are leading using Hattie’s work at the Schools History Project conference in July. Five years on after I was first introduced to the book by Dale, he is still grappling with the ideas to the benefit of  his students and his school.

I was also reminded of deliberate and thoughtful work when the Head of Boys, Chris Nicholls, retired at the end of term. I’ve already written about him in a previous post and I don’t want to embarrass him any more although I think the picture below captures some of the depth of feeling the students had for him on his final day after 38 years at one school.

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

I’m not suggesting that absorbing new ideas and ways of looking at things is wrong. They are vital for development and are essential for finding your own way yet they should be tempered by the realisation that there are no quick fixes or slogans that substantively lead to progress. Minkkinen writes:

The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere. It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

The journey to becoming a great educator is hard and can be frustrating. However, by following Minkkinen’s exhortation to ‘stay on the fucking bus’, working hard, being reflective and possessing the courage of your convictions, which motivated you to start the journey in the first place, you may just become the great teacher you hope to be.

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Reading leadership

Image from London Transport notice

Sage advice from the Tottenham Court Road Tube team.

Arising from a conversation with Simon Warburton on his blog and on Twitter and a request from Zoe Ross, below is a limited selection of the most influential books I have read related to leadership in the last twelve months.

I want to make it very clear that no book or approach has the ‘answer’ and the usefulness of the book will ultimately depend on where you are in your leadership development, your style, the particular environment you work in and what other things you have read.

Core Purpose

I worked with Mark Lauder, the Headmaster at Ashville College, in a previous school and was always amazed by his ability to focus on the core issue and strip away extraneous information. What Mark did (and I did not realise at the time) was to reduce the issue to one of core purpose – does it really fit with the principles driving the school? Returning to principles provides a sense of clarity and drive hard decisions by saying ‘no’ to certain things that detract from the main focus.

From Good to Great – Jim Collins

Some people have an issue with the ‘getting the wrong people off the bus and getting the right people on the bus’ metaphor in the book (although the author of the post, Keven Bartle, admits that he has not read the book). My view is that it depends on the situation you are in and focussing on this issue detracts from the most important aspect I took away from the which is ‘core purpose’ – what is important to the institution and what drives it? Focusing on this means turning down things that are tempting but do not really link to the principle guiding the institution (it has caused me to turn down a number of speaking engagements as they do not fit into my core purpose or the core purpose of my school). One criticism is it business focus and I was pleased to find that Collins has written a monograph for the ‘Social Sectors’ as a companion to the main book (which might answer Bartle’s criticism on the use of the metaphor).

Start With Why – Simon Sinek

I use Sinek’s idea of the ‘Golden Circle‘ all the time in my thinking as it always forces me think whether the problem under discussion really fits with our core purpose. Sinek argues that institutions know ‘how’ they do things and ‘what’ they do but they do not necessarily know ‘why’ they do those things. Starting with ‘why’ provides clarity for all subsequent actions.

Building capacity

Teaching involves building the capacity of students. Leadership also involves building capacity and the book below has really also made me think carefully about my work with students, colleagues, parents and other organisations.

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown

This book has had a major impact on my thinking. I found it has given me concrete tools to build the capacity (as the book terms it, ‘how the best leaders make everyone else smarter’) and it identified quite clearly the things I have have done in the past to ‘diminish’ the performance of others. I cringed when I read certain parts of the book that identified precisely the poor leadership/management processes (as I could see myself in them). Continuing in this manner was not really an option. I have been extremely fortunate to read the forthcoming version focussed on education and I do believe it will be of use to everyone in a leadership position in schools.

Interpersonal skills

I have to say that this area is something that has developed over a period of time through watching others interact and trialling some ideas myself. I have tried to work really hard on this in the last twelve months and I believe it has helped in interactions with colleagues, parents, students and representatives from other organisations.

What Every Body is Saying – Joe Navarro

There are many books on body language and non-verbal communication and they (I would argue) get to the point very quickly. However, this book really cemented for me the importance of paying careful attention to conversation and non-verbal signals (possibly because it helped the author solve crimes). As with any non-verbal communication book, the real work comes from working on noticing cues until they become the default setting. It has certainly helped me defuse/respond to a number of situations effectively.

Starting a new job

Starting a new job well is crucial, especially in a leadership role in another school where you have to assimilate a new culture quickly. The book below really helped me think carefully about what I had to learn and my limitations and goals in the first few months of my new role.

The First 90 Days – Michael D Watkins

Ian Phillips, Assistant Head at Haberdasher Aske’s Boys’ School, recommended this book to me and it provides a framework for thinking about your role and practical strategies to minimise the difficulty of coming to grips with a new culture/role.

A selection of other books/magazines that I found useful in the last twelve months:

Harvard Business Review (Kindle Subscription)

Mind over Mind – Chris Berdik

The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive – Patrick Lencioni

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni

High Performers – Alistair Smith

The Gold Mine Effect – Rasmus Ankersen

The Innovator’s DNA – Clayton Christensen

Mistakes were Made (but not by me) – Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

Adapt – Tim Harford

Future Perfect – Steven Johnson

 

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Are you a ‘Multiplier’?

Multiple image of a man

As the new term approaches, many of us are filled with hope and a little dread about the new school year. For me, and a few others, not only does it bring new students and new colleagues, but also new schools and I formally start as Deputy Head at Berkhamsted School. As an introduction and welcome to the school, the Principal sent me a book at the start of the summer break that he thought would give me an idea about the leadership style the school is in the process of developing. Reading the Wall Street Journal bestseller ‘Multipliers’ by Liz Wiseman (with Greg McKeown) offered an insight into the school but also made me reflect very carefully on my own leadership journey.

The premise for the book is based on the idea that ‘some leaders make us better and smarter’ and as a result, working for these kinds of managers/leaders allows us to perform in ways that use the very best of our thinking and to give our maximum effort. Other types of leaders are ‘diminishers’ who limit the contributions of colleagues and leave untapped the intellectual resources in an organisation. For Wiseman and McKeown, the characteristics of a ‘multiplier’ include an ability to:

  • look for talent everywhere by finding the ‘genius’ within people and connecting them with opportunities and removing the barriers (which can include the leader who attracts them);
  • create an intense environment that requires people’s best thinking and work by creating the space for others to work in and not by dominating the discussion;
  • challenge and define an opportunity which causes people to stretch and develop by showing the need for change by asking hard questions;
  • drive sound decisions through rigourous debate;
  • give other people ownership for results.

Reading the book certainly made me think about my leadership development and what it is like to work for a ‘multiplier’. I previously mentioned a Deputy Head I worked with who was most certainly a ‘multiplier‘ and it was clear that people were drawn to him because he demanded the best thinking when confronting problems and issues. It also made me think clearly about instances where the choices I made did not help me utilise the intelligence of those around me from colleagues to students. It is not usual for business books to resonate so clearly in terms of education but the five bullet points distinguishing a ‘multiplier’ would easily translate into what a great teacher would do. This has also occurred to Wiseman as she contacted me to let me know that work on book focussed solely on education was in the pipeline. I look forward to it and would recommend that you read ‘Multipliers’ in the interim and pass it on to colleagues. It really will make you think about how you work with colleagues and students as you start the new academic year.

Image: darwinjus on Flickr

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