Category Archives: Leadership

7 Billion Stories and How to Hear Them

You don’t know what it’s like to lead a school through a global pandemic unless you’ve led a school through a global pandemic.

– a statement to which many of the leaders with whom I work will relate. And it speaks a wider truth: everyone on Earth has a unique pandemic story to tell. Tales of tragedy and transformation; of reflection, resilience or resignation; of anger, of loneliness; of division and unity; selfishness, cruelty and, thankfully, of kindness.

How to Tell a Story

Look to stories that have already been told to find the kind of narrative you need. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots (2004) is one of many frameworks that makes this easier. Booker analyses thousands of tales and argues for a meta-narrative that describes ‘story’ per se, together with 7 plots that keep on cropping up. Your story will be a combination of these seven motifs:

  • Overcoming the monster – defeating an evil force.
  • Rags to riches – gaining power, wealth, success; loosing it; getting it back.
  • Quest – setting out to acquire an important object; facing challenges and temptations.
  • Voyage and return – visiting a strange land; overcoming threats; returning changed.
  • Tragedy – a personal undoing because of a flaw or a mistake.
  • Comedy – concluding happily after twists, turns and misunderstandings.
  • Rebirth – changing ways (for the better) because of a significant event.

And these themes tell our shared, global story of the last 18 months as well: the quest for vaccines to overcome the devastation of COVID-19; the plot twists and muddles as politics, media, social media and science intertwine; and our rebirths as we return to a world changed forever.

How to Hear a Story

I joked recently with a group of specialist teachers I’m training in coaching skills that there are 5 different kinds of listening:

  • Active Listening – paying full attention to meaning.
  • Dialogic Listening – learning through conversation.
  • Discerning listening – gathering specific information.
  • Pub Listening – waiting for the other person to finish speaking so you can say the thing you wanted to say before they started.
  • Family Listening – two or more simultaneous monologues.

They all have their place but the first three offer real value to the speaker. If you’ve ever been able to just talk freely, confidentially, without judgement and without expectation; if you’ve been heard, really heard, by another person then you’ll know the power of that kind of exchange.

Telling your story and having it authentically heard can be affirming, healing and empowering.

Whose story will you hear? And to whom will you tell yours?

Advice to a Bully

You do realise that 10% of these people will dislike you as soon as you open your mouth, don’t you Mike?

I’m just about to present to 150 senior leaders in education when my co-presenter offers this heartening advice. She’s a psychologist specialising in recruitment. Companies pay her to spot sociopathic and psychopathic behaviours at interview. They argue her fee is far, far less than the price of employing a bully.

Her helplful observation is actually empowering and emancipating. Get over expecting everyone to like you or your message. People see the world in very different ways and that’s OK. My colleague just happens to have put a number on it. It rings true: I have to work a little harder with one in ten, one in twenty people and why would this audience be any different?

Maybe you’d have felt bullied in this situation; a victim of her well-timed passive-aggression designed to destabilise a co-presenter – I was only sharing information with you, I thought you’d be interested!

Maybe she’d have caused her own alarm bells to ring at interview. Who knows her intention. I never asked.

Anyhow the keynote passed off without a hitch and my life carried on. But I’m reminded of this now in early 2020 (Corona Virus, Brexit etc.) as current secretary of state for the home department Priti Patel stands accused of bullying behaviour. Initiated by the departure of senior home office official Sir Philip Rutman, who is suing the UK government for constructive dismissal, the story is playing out around the issue of bullying. Is she a bully or a strong and focussed leader? Are her behaviours appropriate? Misunderstood? Effective? Is this just someone’s hissy fit in response to Patel’s poorly executed ‘difficult conversation’. And would my colleague have nailed her at interview? We won’t know for a while, if ever.

I once set up an anti-bullying program in school. After much research I chose the ‘No Blame’ approach.  Although vilified by punishment-hungry traditionalists, the system worked. It seeks long term solutions by presenting the full impact of the bullying behaviour to the perpetrator – but without blame. For once they are not judged. They have a chance to assimilate the consequences of their actions. The victim gets an equal voice and healing happens. We found most times the bully was themselves a victim, their skewed actions a cry for control and esteem.

But that was children, learning to navigate power. These are adults who should know better. And what is better? I’m not suggesting the No Blame approach for the UK government. I am mooting ‘Radical Candour’ to anyone who finds themselves in a bullying scenario.

Conceived by entrepreneur and CEO coach Kim Scott, this approach to strong leadership is deceptively simple:

1. Care personally

2. Challenge directly

Missing 1. you are abrasive and bullish, without 2. weak, unwilling to speak necessary truths. If both are in deficit there’s toxicity and manipulation.

No, for strong and effective leadership Scott argues we need to say it like it is to a person who we continue to value.

Maybe, way ahead of Scott’s thinking, that’s exactly what my co-presenter was doing all those years ago.

Something to think about

What features of radical candour do you see in yourself, your leaders?

Bully? Bullying behaviour? Sociopathic or sociopath?

What’s the best way to speak truth to power?

How do we teach pupils Radical Candour?

http://www.thinkingclassroom.co.uk