“I’ve only ever opened the batting.”
That was my response when recently asked by the skipper of a new cricket team I joined about my preferred batting position and experience.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I have always enjoyed the psychological challenge of seeing off the oppositions opening bowlers, weathering the torrent of bouncers, sheer pace and aggression. It also makes me feel like I am making one of the most important contributions in the team.”
“Have you had any leadership experience in the game?” was the next question.
“Yes, nine straight years of my last clubs 1st XI” I replied.
“Was that a good thing to be skipper for so long?’
“Never really thought about it” was the only thing I could come back with.
As it happens, I didn’t open the innings in this the first game for my new club. I was sent in at number four, a totally unfamiliar position. This gave me chance to pad up, sit, wait and reflect on the skippers questions before the start of the match. For the most part, the reflection was tinged with regret and frustration.
I regret being captain of the side for nine consecutive seasons. They were all successful seasons, granted, winning four league titles and four runners-up positions. However, I realise now that I probably did more harm than good. Why you might ask? The abiding questions I was left with were:
- By opening the batting for all that time, how many up-and-coming players did I deny the chance to open the innings, gain experience and feel an integral part of the team and club?
- Why did I not give up the captaincy or allow someone else to take it? I could have stepped down. When I think back, there were several other senior and even younger players who could have done an excellent job. Was I deluded to think that I was indispensable? Was I convinced that the team wouldn’t fare well without my leadership, runs or wickets?
- Why did I not work closely with my vice-captain to strategically succession plan for my eventual departure?
- By not distributing responsibility more readily, what did that say about my levels of trust in my teammates?
- Consequently, did my team have trust in me? Why should they have trust me?
- Fundamentally, what kind of leader did this make me? Did I make people feel valued and capable on and off the field?
So what has this got to do with education I hear you ask? Dr Michelle Jones posted a great quote yesterday which really gets to heart of my argument:
‘Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.’
This is a fantastic point, I feel, about school leadership at both Middle and Senior levels. How often do we pause to consider HOW we are building capacity in others? I would argue that school leaders are responsible for building leadership capital in their staff by distributing responsibility and offering up opportunities to gain experience (of course with support – i.e. coaching), lead the learning and shape the culture, one of inclusion, not exclusivity, ‘us and them’ and mistrust if you like.
Developing strength in depth and a diversity of skills, schools support their many functions as leadership teams are thinking more carefully about sustainability. By clearing away perceived competition, we make way for ‘cooperation and deep relationships characterised by authentic collaboration’ (Zoe Elder). As we individually grow confident as leaders, we can place ourselves ‘down the order’ and fill the organisation with a growing ‘middle order’.
I am reminded of a great point by Kouzes and Posner:
“Leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It is a process ordinary people use when they are bringing forth the best from themselves and others. When the leader in everyone is liberated extraordinary things happen.”
I recently made contact with the current skipper of my old cricket club, who incidentally played under me for several seasons. He has turned out to be a superb skipper and has an enviable record or winning the league and cup double 3 seasons in a row. He attributes the success the team has earned to the fact that THEY (not HE) worked hard to create a collaborative culture, one where there is a second player available to fill every position and a real sense of distributed responsibility. Everyone plays an integral role and is acknowledged for it.
I wish I had played under this skipper, I would have learned a great deal and really enjoyed the experience. This notion of giving up control, building trust and investing in people is, I believe, paramount for schools but not always easy. How good would it be, as Michelle Jones asserts, if we were absent and the school functioned better without us? Stepping back and appearing invisible is a real challenge, but imagine writing yourself out of the match report altogether. Wouldn’t that be a leader’s job done?