'You're too late,' said the bursar. 'Just tell me over the phone what you want'
If I try to think of the definition of quintessential boredom, all I need do is close my eyes and think back to the days of my history A-level. Imagine 12 girls sitting round a table, in silence, furiously taking notes as a history teacher reads in a monotone from Bringing European History Alive. Questions were not allowed, we just had to listen and copy.
Gemma text = Maybe it was supposed to be good experience in dictation for when we all went on to be secretaries. Let me tell you, if the Thirty Years War seemed long for the people fighting it, it seemed even longer for the poor buggers studying it in my history class. I tried to find out if I could buy the textbook and read it myself so I wouldn't have to go to lessons. It had been out of print since 1947.
Unsurprisingly, few of us went on to study history at university. But I did take one important thing from my study of European history, and it's stood me in good stead in my early months as head of a large department. Philip II of Spain. He's probably best known in this country for his defeated Armada, but he also had a unique approach to organising his various realms.
Never one to prioritise, and strictly methodical, he would deal with requests and affairs of state strictly in the order in which they arrived on his desk. So urgent issues, no matter how pressing, took their position behind more mundane problems, and he would always get round to dealing with things in the end. It didn't endear him to his subjects, but for him it worked wonders, because he took so long to get round to addressing important issues that they had a funny way of resolving themselves while he was busy elsewhere. I believe he was petitioned once for permission to demolish a bridge that had fallen into a state of disrepair. He took so long to consider the proposition that the bridge fell down of its own accord, and he was spared the hassle of sending his engineers out to do it.
What a brilliant strategy.
I was reminded of this unlikely management guru in those hectic last few days before Christmas when the bursar phoned me and said that, unlike all other heads of department, I had not submitted a bid for a share of some money the head had received unexpectedly. Did I not want an interactive whiteboard, some new textbooks, or a DVD player for my department? A consultation with my fellow heads of department informed me that everyone else had slaved over their bids, and submitted them weeks ago. I had placed the piece of paper on my pile and (uncharacteristically for me, of course) forgotten about it. I apologised and asked if I could submit my bid late, dreading the long night ahead of me at my PC. "You're too late," said the bursar. "Just tell me over the phone what you want." I decided to go for broke. An interactive whiteboard please, a TVDVD machine, a new overhead projector, and that new spelling CD-Rom I keep meaning to order and never get round to.
Next day, I got an email. Bid accepted. I had the lot. I was flabbergasted.
I usually get things only by filling out thousands of bits of paper, promising to evaluate their effectiveness at regular intervals and giving a pound of flesh. Could I really have achieved so much by being so ineffective? I was reminded of good old Philip. Leave it alone, and things have a habit of working themselves out on their own. I must try this approach more often. Who cares about a tidy desk at the end of the day? Achieve more by doing less. It's my new management mantra.
Gemma Warren is head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org