Poetic justice

16th January 2015 at 00:00

Modern school leaders conduct their working lives in complicated, ever-changing settings and have the unenviable challenge of making that disorder meaningful for others. Yet they are pressurised into focusing on quantitative, mechanistic elements of their job that do nothing to help others understand the big picture.

Take the old saying "you can't see the wood for the trees". Imagine trying to help a child realise why walking through a wood can be a wonderful experience simply by giving them information about the number and type of trees, their heights, weights, ages and possible uses in an industrial age.

Certainly they might have enough information about trees to regurgitate in an exam, but expecting this to give them an appreciation, or even love, of woods is nonsensical.

Yet a workplace communiqu will all too often simply focus on the number of trees. The tendency is to provide "hard" information about processes, targets, outcomes, budgets, systems and structures, and to expect people to get behind this because it presents the facts.

In the 1970s, the organisational theorist Professor James G March introduced the idea of leadership as a balance between two alternative perspectives: plumbing and poetry.

Plumbing represents the hard information and concrete nature of operational issues that can dominate our thinking in schools and public services, whereas poetry is language at its most condensed and potent - it captures our emotions, and taps into our imagination and passions.

Working in a school where a leader's behaviour was located at the extreme poetry end of the spectrum would be a trial - nothing would get done. Yet we do not appear to have the same reticence about slipping towards the extreme plumbing end.

Thinking like a poet can liberate leaders and their colleagues from the tedium of "counting trees". It forces leaders to look at a complex problem or environment, then distil that into something that people can begin to empathise with.

It's often a lack of empathy that prevents people from getting behind the mission of an organisation, especially if that mission is only really understood and owned by the senior leaders.

Thinking like a poet stimulates and encourages creativity. It can help leaders to foster entrepreneurial and imaginative behaviour, and find unexpected solutions when the mechanistic process fails.

Poetry can also give our lives beauty and meaning. A constant challenge in education is to keep ourselves and our colleagues invested with wonder and purpose, especially when the focus is on the mundane and the ordinary.

Ask yourself whether people in your organisation are imbued with that sense of wonder and purpose. If not, then perhaps your leader needs to down tools and nudge towards the poetry end of their practice.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University

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