Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.
The Sword of Damocles
I’ll happily tell anyone that I’m quite an ambitious sort. I want to get to the very top of my profession. I’ve always wanted to. It’d be the same for whatever career I decided to take part in. I know there’s other people who don’t feel this way and are happy to get to a certain level and not move on, because they’ve got other priorities, which is fine.
But, with such ambition must come an acceptance of the fact that as you move up each level, the responsibility becomes greater and the impact of one’s decisions become more significant, and as such unless you know how to manage it, the stress and scrutiny increases – this is the ‘Sword of Damocles’ of ancient legend.
As with any difficult role, sharing one’s worries and burdens is an essential part of dealing with them, as much as ‘working smarter’, ‘prioritising’ and the like are. This is where networking can be so powerful.
Ploughing one’s own furrow
In previous posts I’ve discussed the danger of being inward facing, and relying on one’s own expertise to improve one’s performance. This applies to groups and individuals alike. In my opinion, the opportunity to improve comes from being outward facing, and moulding a way of working that aids and betters your circumstances.
I learned this very early on in my time as a teacher. Right from the start, I’d be out there on the internet, on courses and visiting other schools, finding out what they’re up to and cherry-picking the bits I liked, whilst offering my opinion/help to others. It creates a fertile environment for quality work to form.
As well as sharing with and learing from others, avoiding ploughing one’s own furrow has other additional benefits. One is that you have people with possible objective viewpoints to rely on, people who are out of proximity to the environment you’re in. Also, and this is most beneficial, you’ll overcome obstacles quicker, using methods that you might not have considered because a) you weren’t aware of such methods or b) you were blind to the actual problem.
My favourite analogy in this regard is the Gordian Knot. The Gordian Knot was this supposed impossible puzzle that befuddled many a figure in antiquity. When Alexander the Great came to the town where the knot was located, he challenged himself with untieing the knot as an indication of his power and potential. When he found it a struggle, he simply took out his sword and cut straight through it, and declared the puzzle solved. Some say this is cheating – I’d be inclined to agree if it wasn’t that Alexander is a hero of mine (Left handed. Tutored by Aristotle. Conquered the known world by the age of 30. What’s not to like?) – but the point is that he looked at the problem in a different way. This is often called ‘thinking outside of the box’, which is a horrible phrase, but you get the idea.
We as leaders come across ‘Gordian Knots’ all the time, these seemingly intractable problems that we must solve to get students to be more successful. Some will cheat – let’s face it. But the rest of us, we have to look outwards and see how others are dealing with similar issues.
For example, I chose to develop a curriculum based on mastery at my current school because I was concerned that no matter what we did with the students prior to this, they weren’t recalling basic concepts, and thus were building mathematical knowledge on loose ground. How did I find out about this? I was tipped off by a colleague at another local school and then contacted Bruno Reddy, who was promoting this approach because of its success at his school. In other words – I networked.
There’s been many, many similar situations in my career and 99% of the time I’ve achieved success because I’ve learned from others. Socrates’ famous quote “all that I know is that I know nothing” is never more applicable in this regard. I’ll happily admit when I don’t have answers but I take pride in the fact that I often know where to get them from.
You can’t move for articles on leadership promoting the power of networks. It’s a cliché, yes, but clichés are ideas that once carried weight but through overuse are undermined. I’ve made a concerted effort over the past couple of years to extend my connections beyond former work mates, people who I trained with and local schools. This is not because I can’t rely on them – I’m often amazed by the quality of what they do – but it widens my scope and increases the possibility of dealing with challenges quicker and more effectively. Also by being a ‘node’ in a network it means I can pass on this know-how to others and collectively we can all improve at a remarkable rate.
This is the reason for my ire over the current Shanghai teaching fascination. It isn’t that I don’t think we should be working with teachers from Shanghai – I absolutely agree we should be working with anyone who can help raise the national standard of Mathematics teaching. My anger is that the professional network, and therefore knowledge base, presently developing in the UK is incredible, and isn’t being recognised.
Boiling it down…
To succeed in leadership you often have to share one’s burden and/or learn from others to cope with the daily demands of your role. In order to do so, one must be outward-facing and show humility in the idea that any person can do better. Working as part of a professional network means that you can develop one’s own practice that allows you overcome obstacles to progress quickly and effectively, and likewise pass on this knowledge to others. The knowledge base in the UK is growing and improving in quality and effectiveness, and its network is something you can only benefit from being part of.