The Wounded Leader

Recently I recalled a book I read a few ago called The Wounded Leader by Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski.

In the book they suggest schools have leadership resistant architecture typically “the conspiracy of busyness: where there is little time for leaders to convene people together to plan, organise and follow through – its a catch as catch can” situation.

Well, I fear I have unwittingly led such a conspiracy where I tried to appease people (e.g. agree to give people time to complete things in classrooms and not meet) and groups (e.g. meeting seemingly tight industrial conditions) in the hope that they would believe in the strategic goals, feel the moral imperative and follow my lead. Well, while wounding is inevitable as a leader its effects can be destabilising, both personally and professionally. Simply retelling the wounding while maybe cathartic doesn’t help readers understand that through the experience I have grown and that they may grow through their wounding as well.

The short story (from my perspective) is that I felt somewhat nobbled from a contract renewal process where I felt my authority slowly ebbed away under a banner of consultation. Don’t misunderstand me to consult others is a positive and indeed an essential disposition for leaders except when it turns into an expected appeasement by others to conform to either popular opinion, harassment or formal agreements. Please note that I am making a difference between authority, that is the delegated power to make decisions, and leadership. I still felt I was making a difference as a leader to the school and supporting others to do well, in some cases exceptionally well and showing a willingness to take risks and embrace change.

The busyness is easy to accumulate in a school and for me at the time of the wounding it involved: the need to complete the financial and workforce plans for the coming year which for me included the employment of 30% of new staff for replacement and growth, the completion of a complaints process, supporting teachers and staff implementing a new curriculum, technological (1:1 notebook program) and intercultural initiatives with a sister school in China, the presentation of performance data at staff and board levels and actually interacting with our young people whether it be in classrooms or on the field.

What I didn’t think about was the effect of some of these initiatives on some people to such a degree where dissent for me was palatable. Some meetings where this dissent was laid bare were unpleasant to attend and needed much time planning for the meeting and debriefing afterwards.

In the end I made or consented to decisions that in reflection I feel were not in the best interest of the school either short or long-term e.g. not meeting with team leaders on a weekly basis or following through on sister school initiatives.

So what did I learn? That I needed to have higher expectations and make people more accountable for their actions (including words) and that having forged an educational vision through research, consultation, action and evaluation I needed to hold the line, not acquiesce to pressure and accept that people still might dissent but that was their decision. Easy to say harder to do.

I feel principals, even experienced ones like myself need mentors and even coaches who are independent from the school and paid for by the school or system. Maybe I have something here to offer others?

This post has been hard for me to write for several reasons: I’m still in the reflective stage and on leave so some emotions still exist and in writing I have tried to avoid blame (it’s a non-productive emotion) and people might interpret my writing personally and not accept its my learning.

BUT I felt now was the time to write before I move to other exciting possibilities. I realise that in writing about wounding particularly before goodbyes I leave myself open to criticism or resentment from others but that’s the chance I have taken. I do so in the hope that we may all learn going forward.

I will soon have the opportunity to say goodbye to a community that I was truly committed to and felt supported by over my 14 plus years of service and I’d like the chance to once more see the kids.

All of this has been made possible by a very supportive employer (DET) who recognised the wounding and have met with me and approved time for me to see the learning. I say this because often the “system” is seen as hard and uncaring but over my time I have felt the opposite – they were there when I needed them (and not just this time either).

I welcome comments and again urge readers to see this as my time to learn.

Yours truly

Mark Walker

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13 Responses to The Wounded Leader

  1. kentjohnp says:

    Mark, I was so moved by what you wrote. It tore at my heart strings. Know this. You leave EPS with such a lasting legacy and I feel so privileged to have worked with and known you for the past three years. I have learned so much more about leadership in our brief time together than I have in the previous 30 years of my career. Our school community will be so much the poorer now that you are moving on. I know I will miss working with you.

  2. Sue says:

    Hi Mark, I have read your blog for some time and have always enjoyed the new learning that you have provided. Your work has influenced mine, enabling us to investigate paths that we may not have traveled down and at times you have confirmed for us the path we were/are on. The principalship is a challenging road for all who are on it. May your new opportunities enable you to continue to share with us and may you continue to find the joy that is in teaching and leading.

    • mwalker says:

      Thanks Sue I’ve just started to write and read again and I’m looking forward to saying goodbye and opening that new door.

  3. Biil Gilpin says:

    G’Day Mark, I read your posting at first with somewhat of a heavy heart. Knowing the work you have achieved in your school, the mentoring of others and the development of teachers has been a remarkable journey. You have been able to create an atmosphere as Hattie talks about of “knowing the impact of your school on the learning of your students.” Your continuing journey in developing yourself has taken you on a course that few school leaders attain.
    Yep the wounding hurts but I am sure you will come out of it as a better person. You are quite correct about principals having mentors. I think they can be inside the system or out. However, they are a vital part to guide and offer authentic feedback on the various roles of being a school leader.
    Your reflection brought back fond memories about the readings and discussions on the philosophers and educational leaders on the purpose of education at Monash. There are some great opportunities in education and we are at the cross roads as leaders as to where we go. The Wounded Leader (2002) at first dismayed me. The wounding and loss in the role I found to be overwhelming at times. Reading how principals and leaders are constantly moving in phases of restitution, chaos or quest in their lives. Who would take on such a role? However, I realise the importance of this book and the stories, how it lead me down a path of reading other books, articles and learning from class presentations.
    ‘Inner leadership: understanding self and others’ makes so much sense. I cannot possibly be an effective leader if I fail to know and acknowledge my own strengths and weaknesses and the needs, attributes and emotions of others in my school. I am learning that emotion is inherent to the practice of leadership rather than separate from it. My technical, cultural, symbolic, human and education leadership actions are inseparable from and influenced by emotion.

    Your reflection is a powerful statement about how you go about the work of being a leader. You remind me of Sergiovanni, ‘You can do what’s right or you can do the right thing.’ You are a leader who does the right thing.

    Bill Gilpin, currently working as a curriculum advisor at the National Institute of Education Sri Lanka.

    • mwalker says:

      Bill I enjoyed our discussions and thank you for your kind thoughts. It’s interesting you reflect on hattie ” know thy impact” it became something of a mantra to me but the busyness blinded me a little. Woundings are inevitable as a leader so to know yourself is so important as the “Inner Leadership” book rightly points out. One of the last relationships I formed for the school was with John hattie at melbourne university in a 3 year project so the work can continue not that I anticipated the wounding at that time. Hope your wok OS is rewarding and would to catch up upon your return.

      • Bill Gilpin says:

        Hi Mark, I brought three books over here and have been introducing them to people at the Institute: ’Visible Learning’, ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ and ‘Data Wise.’
        Just so powerful to know the impact we have on learning. I have two mantras that I have been using here, Hattie’s ‘Know thy impact’ and Elmore’s ‘If it is not happening in the classroom it is not happening.’ As Sue mentions the principalship is a challenging road for all who are on it. I hope this part of your journey leads to new and challenging opportunities for you.

Interested in your thoughts