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Wisdom of Heads III

“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

In this third ‘Wisdom of Heads’ piece, the focus is mistakes. Respondents were asked what mistakes they had made in their careers and what they learned from those mistakes.

Your first year in a leadership post is the honeymoon period. Staff will overlook your mistakes, and will hopefully cut you a little bit of slack.

That’s a good thing, because newbie mistakes are common. They are also, to some extent, necessary. Mistakes are how we learn.

However, to help you avoid bringing your leadership honeymoon to a sudden, inglorious close, I wanted to know what mistakes experienced school leaders see new ones making.

By far and above, mistakes related to change management were the most popular response. A few examples:

“Trying to change things every year — moving fast, only to then have to slow down.”

“New leaders try to do everything at once. Take your time, get to know the school culture. Changes are then understood as coming from an understanding of the school rather than as an imposition.”

“Trying to make changes too quickly. You need to listen, observe and ask questions (for at least one school year) first.”

“Changing things before they have built relationships with people.”

“Believing they need to reinvent the school in their first year; look, listen and learn first.”

Other common newbie mistakes:

“Thinking they have to have the answers to all the questions.”

“I think that a lot of leaders lose sight of their teaching roots far too quickly.”

“Making the job about ‘them’. School leaders need to be driven by vision, not ego.”

“Trying too hard to be the boss. Teachers are the hardest people of all the manage.”

“There are some new leaders who get pleasure out of reprimanding staff and being seen to be hard and tough, although occasionally necessary, it is seldom the only way to solve an issue.”

“Believing that they should respond to emails immediately.”

“Tackling everything that is wrong instead of focusing on what is going to make the most difference in their students’ achievement, positive experiences and well-being. In other words, a new leader should focus on the good as well as the bad.”

“Lack of delegating which can be a sign of lack of trust, or the ego of being the only one who can do the task, etc.”

“A lack of communication.”

“Trying too hard to be liked.”

“Trying to please everyone.”

“Presenting the plucking of low hanging fruit as miraculous.”

“New school leaders often set themselves unrealistic and perfectionist expectations. Things take time. Be patient.”

“Judging staff too quickly; try to avoid ‘pigeonholing’”

“Micro management. Trying to do everything. You need to delegate and prioritise.”

MISTAKES MATTER (but, maybe not how you think)

Ok, Ok. You are perfect. You are the exception. You are the one person who has never made a mistake. Ever.

But, let’s imagine for a second you are one of those other people. The kind who makes mistakes.

Imagine you are that person.

When did you (ok, ‘that person’) last make a mistake? Have you made any of the newbie mistakes our wise Heads list?

More importantly, what happened after the last time you made a mistake? Have you made the same mistake again? Did you blame someone or something else? Or, did you reflect on the mistake and learn?

The wise and the foolish are separated by the ability to admit to, and learn from, mistakes. Where other people make excuses or take shortcuts, the wise don’t. Where other people wing it or do what’s easiest, taking the path of least resistance, the wise do the hard miles.

So much of school leadership is outside of our control.

We set out to do something and we are quickly beset by challenges. We are frustrated by peoples’ tendency to think only about themselves. We are delayed by mistakes and missteps. The wise leader embraces mistakes. Not because they have to, but because they know what’s on the other side is wonderful: learning, success, excellence, life-changing forward momentum.

What was your last mistake? What did you learn from it?

The full ‘Wisdom of Heads’ book can be purchased here (Amazon US), here (Amazon UK) or here (iBooks).




on education, by educators, about all things educational

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Dr Denry Machin

Dr Denry Machin

Educationalist. Writer. Sharing (hopefully wise) words on school leadership and management.

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