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