The hugely successful British Olympic rowing team used to ask themselves a simple question when pondering decisions that they made about their lives during training: “Will it make the boat go faster?”
This got me thinking about what the equivalent question would be for school leaders. What is our boat? What is our core purpose?
As a classroom teacher, my primary focus was the development of learning and as a leader, it has been the same. The question for me in this instance would be: “Will it make the learning better?”
Having asked this question, you realise that, based on educational research, many of the policies and initiatives being implemented in schools (and the ones that I had continued to uphold unquestionably as a head of department) do not make the learning better. Instead, they follow an established status quo and are based on gut feeling and assumption. You can then make changes accordingly.
But while the question of “Will it make the learning better?” is a good one and still something I use today as an educational leader, my thinking has developed towards a broader and deeper concept of core purpose, inspired by many sources.
The first is Simon Sinek. His book Start with Why discusses how most organisations start with the what: they rush to the end of their thinking in a desire to move things forward quickly. Sinek believes that in doing this, many organisations are missing a trick and that they should all start with questions like “Why does this school exist?” and “Why is it different to other schools?” This perspective was also dear to the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who stated: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
I have also been influenced by James Kerr’s Legacy, a book about the all-conquering New Zealand rugby team. In it, Kerr states: “People want to believe in something bigger than themselves; purpose propels and moves people, and moving people is the purpose of a leader.” This is a principle shared by Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He writes: “The striving to find meaning is the primary motivational force in man. We should not be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfil.”
But what does this all lead to? Through lengthy consultation with others, I have learned that the “why” – this core purpose critical to any organisation and, arguably, to any individual – can be constructed around the points below.
This does not have to be achievable. Apple’s is create “a dent in the universe” while Adidas talks about “impossible is nothing”. It should be futuristic, no longer than five or six words and highly aspirational.
This should also be brief and represent what drives you as an individual, or collective, towards your dream.
The focus concerns what you need to concentrate on as you aspire towards the dream – for example, ambition, belief and courage.
What you hold dear – principles that should be tangible within the organisation’s actions and recognisable as being manifested through various policies and personal interactions.
A school’s character is what your institution should be synonymous with – ideally, one-word descriptions such as resilient, positive and resourceful.
Greatest imaginable challenge
Finally, the greatest imaginable challenge should be the one thing that the organisation aspires to achieve en route to the dream – something that seems almost impossible.
Using this framework, my own core purpose as an educational leader is as follows:
Dream – lead the future of education.
Spirit – pioneering mindset.
Focus – consistency and clarity (of message), along with culture and community (of learning).
Beliefs – challenge the status quo; lead with trust and love; we can always improve.
Character – transformational; resilient; unique; empowering.
Greatest imaginable challenge – become redundant (the students become self-sufficient).
As school leaders, we should always start with a core purpose such as this. A whole school, departmental (or even personal) strategic development plan can then follow from it, reflecting its principles.
Far from being a warm and fuzzy document, a core purpose has the power to enrich, guide and develop an organisation’s direction and the meaning it brings to people’s lives, both professionally and personally. It should be used by leaders as a vital tool for reflection, emotional engagement and achievement.
Alex Battison is assistant headteacher at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset @alex_battison
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Take your core purpose to heart