Adopting childlike traits can make us better leaders

A lack of adventure stifles our creativity and imagination, leading to lacklustre feelings about our lives and work

Mike Fairclough

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The vast majority of children are natural risk-takers. They are free-spirited, imaginative and playful, and their actions are driven by an innate sense of curiosity and adventure. This approach is what enables children to learn about the world around them. It supports their physical and emotional wellbeing, even leading to flow – a state when someone is wholly immersed in a task and motivated to be successful.

That children are like this is unsurprising as they evolve rapidly. As babies, they have to learn to walk and to talk. They then have to work out the complexities of their first social relationships and to engage with the adult world. To do this, children have to regularly move out of their comfort zones, building grit and resilience and developing their physical, emotional and mental capacities at great pace. I often think that the equivalent in the adult world would be if we had to learn to fly within a matter of weeks.

The trouble is, these positive traits often get knocked out of us as we grow up by well-meaning adults and by our schooling. Free-flowing imagination is regarded as a waste of time. We are told to stop day-dreaming and to get our head out of the clouds. Adults teach us to fear the unknown and we are encouraged to stick to familiar paths. Risk-taking is considered to be a reckless act and playfulness is seen as the domain of children.

Creativity and imagination in school leadership

It is this lack of playfulness and adventure that eventually stifles our creativity and imagination, leading to lacklustre feelings about our lives and work. In school leadership, this will inevitably have a detrimental impact on decision-making and risk-taking becomes almost impossible.

But if we allow our imaginations more freedom and let ourselves explore and play more frequently, risk-taking at management level becomes, not just easy, but highly desirable.

Every risk that I have taken at my school – from teaching pupils to shoot guns to getting them to work with knives and fire – has been motivated by the childlike traits of wanting to adventure and play. With each innovation, the school has become more successful. This has made my school leadership team increasingly confident about risk-taking.

Adopting a more adventurous attitude towards life and work does not require a complete overhaul. It can be as simple as exploring a place we have never visited before, or spending more time day-dreaming just for the fun of it.

Above all, we need to look to our pupils – and learn from them, because embracing a more childlike approach to life is what will support our ability and desire to take more risks as leaders.

Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School, which was Tes School of the Year 2015, and author of Playing with Fire: embracing risk and danger in schools

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