‘Self-doubt makes me more decisive’

4th January 2019 at 00:00
Executive head Kay Charles obsesses over her decisions, compulsively turning them over in her head and playing out every possible eventuality. But far from being debilitating, this self-interrogation is the very thing that she believes makes her a good leader

I have always believed that self-doubt is healthy. And I am pretty sure that it is something you just have rather than something you can learn. But I am certain that, as a headteacher, self-doubt is integral to doing the job well.

I am a compulsive reflector. Not only do I reflect formally, as part of performance-management self-evaluation, but I also reflect mentally, mostly in my car going to and from work every day, normally by rehearsing my thinking out loud and talking to myself. I write poetry, too, usually as a way to discharge my disgruntlement with a new policy or directive from on high. And I write emails that can never be sent because they are so explosive and emotional.

It all starts the same way: rage and frustration that rapidly descends into jaundice and then, like Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, I rise again, adamant that I can make a difference.

Doubting yourself is not about failure to make decisions – it is about self-interrogation so that you make the right decisions as much as possible. Too often, self-doubt is aligned with paralysis of thinking and decision-making, but it should be nothing of the sort.

Self-doubt can happen retrospectively. When I tell colleagues that my headteacher performance-management self-evaluation against the headteacher standards is more than 20 pages long, they look at me askance. But it is so long because self-doubt drives me to analyse every decision I have made. I write down the journey of a year and why I make decisions: which bits have been the biggest wrestles, what made my moral compass twitch and areas where I think “yes, I made the right call”.

I acknowledge that being able to do this relies on a set of governors who are even-handed and trustworthy. If they are not, they will use your reflections against you to get rid of you. As my governors trawl through my ramblings, it helps them to see inside my head and understand why I might have dragged us, kicking and screaming, through unwelcome change. It puts things into perspective because they can see my thinking, and gives them confidence because they can see how much thought went into it. Transparent self-doubt does not lead to people losing faith in you; handled properly, it gives them more faith.

Self-doubt can also happen when we plan. Scenario planning, thinking through implications and anomalies of any eventuality…it can be exhausting. But it allows me to risk-assess at a glance, put in place a contingency or grasp an opportunity. Self-doubt makes me more decisive, not less – as long as all the thinking has gone before and is not done in that moment.

There are other rewards the self-doubting teacher can reap, too. Guilt: I don’t often have that nowadays. Self-doubt makes for considered actions. I have already checked and rechecked my moral compass: is this in the best interests of the children we serve? What would this look like on the front page of the Sun? Do I care? Would anyone else care? Does the local authority need to know? Does everyone know who needs to know? Will we be sued? Will I be referred for treatment? What is my gut instinct? If a colleague told me they were doing this, what would I say to them? If I was a parent, what would I think about this?

Once a decision has gone through this filter, there’s no room for guilt to sneak in.

Does this make me a slower leader? On occasion, where necessary, yes. But with all the pre-thought that I put into things, with all that habitual self-doubt, few situations will arise in which I have not already thought things through. So, few moments will cause me surprise. I am often reminded of some free advice my father used to bandy about: “Engage brain before speaking!”

Another benefit is resilience. Self-doubt – that continual nagging at yourself – hardens you to the criticism of others and ensures that you realise the phases of the battles, and that you do come out the other end.

Dictators topple

And lastly, self-doubt has ensured that I employ the right people around me. Because I don’t want people who will just say yes – I need fuel for my self-doubt, I need questions to power it to a conclusion. I need people who tell me the truth and question me. It is painful and exhausting, but it really develops your thinking and ensures every decision is as right as it can be. The alternative is to just surround yourself with people who say yes, insensibly follow government and political directives, and walk around dead from the neck up, smiling like a nodding dog. Who is that benefiting? Not the kids, not your staff and not you.

I’ve seen a few heads fall. And I believe that it can happen to anyone, no matter what their systems are. But I think self-doubt is crucial to keeping you afloat and doing the best job you can do.

Self-doubt is so often a barrier to people wanting to become heads. There is this macho image of leadership in which decisions are flung out off the cuff, and that reflection should just be what you see in a mirror. Don’t buy into it. Some people get to be heads because they are so determined and visionary that they think only they can do it and only their way goes. Maybe it works for some. But self-doubt, for me, is the key to being a good head. Because if you cannot even question yourself, then it really is a dictatorship. And we all know how those end.

Kay Charles is executive headteacher of the Village and Woodfield Schools in the London Borough of Brent. Her school is a member of the education charity Challenge Partners, a collaborative school improvement network. For more information, visit their website: challengepartners.org/what-we-do

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