Who dares wins…the SAS survival guide for leaders

26th February 2016 at 00:00
Methods of the elite special forces unit can be applied for missions in education, says one assistant head

It is, the cover boasts in hard-to-ignore orange typeface, “the ultimate guide to surviving anywhere”. Including, it turns out, on the rungs of the school-leadership ladder.

Joe White was given a copy of the SAS Survival Guide for Christmas. The assistant head of Stone Bay School, in Broadstairs, Kent, was leafing through it when he noticed a surprising relevance to school leadership.

“In the SAS, a lot of the motivation is to prove yourself,” he says. “Your aim is to be the best you can be.

“In school, you don’t want to let the kids down. The children are your mission, aren’t they? And, if you look at job adverts for deputy heads and headteachers, they say that they only want the best.”

Mr White claims that many of the tips from the elite fighting force are as applicable in the staffroom as they are to soldiers under enemy fire.

For example, the guide states: “Lack of equipment should not mean that you are unequipped, for you will carry skills and experience with you, but those skills and experience must not be allowed to get rusty, and you must extend your knowledge all the time.”

Mr White has written a blog outlining the ways in which the guide can double as an instruction manual for surviving the extreme conditions of school leadership.

His SAS tips are part of a growing trend for school leaders to take inspiration from outside education on how to thrive in an increasingly tough job. Last year, the Future Leaders’ Trust ran a course encouraging the headteachers of academy chains to take advice from the brand-management industry.

And heads have taken leadership lessons from sports books such as James Kerr’s Legacy: what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life, about the all-conquering New Zealand rugby team (see Professional in the 4 March issue of TES for more).

Sarah Collymore, head of St George’s primary, in South London, keeps a copy of Leading, by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, in her staffroom.

“There are references in there to bringing out the best in players, making sure you’ve got people in the right positions,” she says.

“It’s about wanting to work hard and train hard, so you can do the best for the children. I do think that school leaders need to draw on other types of leadership.”

Your soldiers’ strengths

For Mr White, a key part of the SAS approach to school leadership involves identifying the strengths of team members, and giving them clearly defined roles to undertake, helping to ensure that projects run efficiently.

SAS school leaders also need to look out for their teammates. “Not leaving anyone behind is becoming increasingly important in education, especially with the problems around teacher retention,” Mr White says. “There are lots of things that leaders can do to reduce workload stresses and strains on staff.”

Mr White’s interest in the army stretches back to his childhood, when he used to read an old version of the SAS Survival Guide, and then build shelters and attempt to trap animals – “never successfully” – in the woods.

Today he points out that headteachers, like special forces soldiers, require a range of skills to draw on in an emergency. “The more knowledge of your organisation you have, the better equipped you will be to deal with this effectively,” he says.

According to the 34-year-old, an important part of SAS leadership is forward planning. Under the heading “Contingency Plans”, the SAS Survival Guide recommends being well prepared for all eventualities.

“What will you do if a vehicle breaks down or if weather conditions prove more severe than anticipated?” the guide asks. “If in a party, how will you regroup if separated?”

Even the most well-prepared SAS school leader, however, can be taken unawares. The SAS Survival Guide offers tips for dealing with a hurricane warning, which Mr White says can be applied in a school setting. “You have 24 hours and have to do everything you can in that period to prepare for the storm that will come down on you,” he says. He pauses. “Our Ofsted is due this term.”

Mike Fairclough, head of West Rise Junior School in East Sussex, where pupils – and their teachers – learn to use saws and axes, and to make fire, agrees that forward-planning is vital to leadership.

“I think there’s a hell of a lot to be gleaned from looking at that survival approach,” he says. “Things hit us on all sides, and we’ve got to be resilient and have perseverance. And headteachers need to think about all possible catastrophes.

“I’ve even imagined what it would be like to have a zombie apocalypse – to be ready for that. Not because I live in fear of it, but because I think it’s always good to be fully prepared for all situations.”

Joe White’s blog about his SAS survival guide for school leadership can be found at his blog: bit.ly/SASleaders


Behind enemy lines

Tips from the SAS Survival Guide:

Be prepared. What will you do if a vehicle breaks down, or if weather conditions prove more severe than anticipated?

Any equipment that you have must be considered a bonus. A lack of equipment should not mean that you are unequipped, as you carry skills and experience with you.

Skills and experience must not be allowed to get rusty. You must extend your knowledge all the time.

Plan for emergency procedures. This can be applied to unforeseen illness.

Hold meetings to discuss responsibilities and plans.

The more detailed your knowledge of place and people, the better your chances. The SAS would study their maps carefully, to gain as much knowledge of the terrain as possible.

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