O Pilot! My Pilot! (or lessons in leadership)

Today I returned from Madrid, where I had been at a fantastic school delivering professional development on leadership.  Whilst I sincerely hope the delightful staff at The British Council School learned from my training course, a true lesson in leadership was offered by the above pilot who flew the very delayed EZY2202 back to Luton.

The analogy between a pilot and a leader may seem time-worn, but today I can attest to its relevance.

The flight was delayed by about two and half hours.  When we finally boarded, I was very grumpy and very tired. I became even more annoyed when they didn’t let me take my one, yes one, bag into the cabin – it had to go in the hold because apparently they were running out of room.  So when I noticed that other people got to take three, yes three, bags into the cabin, I started to feel genuinely angry.

When, bag-less, I took my seat, I noted with a grim irony that of the three joined seats, one was free (‘I could have put my bag there!’ I thought indignantly).  I sat down next to a young Spanish woman who was tapping lightly on her electronic device and I felt even more annoyed because, unlike her, I didn’t have my belongings to help me make it through the flight.  I felt tears rising.  I genuinely thought I might cry.  However, I bravely held them back. After all, I had no tissues with which to wipe my eyes or blow my nose.

I was seated in row 3.  Very close to the front, on the aisle.  So, when a man took hold of the on-board microphone and introduced himself as the pilot, I immediately recognised him as the man who had, moments before, greeted me warmly as I came on board.  At the time, I had scowled at him in response because I was holding anyone and everyone associated with EasyJet responsible for preventing me from getting home and denying me my right to my one bag.  Now, as he started to speak, I felt a tiny bit guilty.  I had never even seen a pilot before; most of them remain enigmatically absent from view. This one had welcomed me onto the plane and I had ignored him.


His speech started with an apology.  He said that he was sorry, really sorry for our delay.  He said he understood our frustration.  He said the cabin crew had also been waiting all day and he apologised to them too.  He then gave an explanation for the delay.  It was something to do with a technical fault in Paris preventing the scheduled pilot from being here, but to be honest I wasn’t taking it in because I was so surprised by the fact I was being given an explanation by this daring pilot, who could – quite understandably – have stayed hidden in the cockpit rather than facing this grim and angry mob.

He then said that when he had received a call early this morning asking him to fly out to Madrid to step in , he was pleased to say yes.  I thought for a horrible, cynical moment that he was going to portray himself as our hero and ask us to worship him, but that’s not what he did at all.  He made it all about the cabin crew.  He said that of course he would want to come and fly with this fantastic cabin crew, because who wouldn’t?  The cabin crew were trying very hard at this point to remain professionally straight-faced, but because I was right near the front I could see by their blushes that they were pleased.

He could have stopped there, but he didn’t.  He said, ‘I really hate being late. We all do.  We hate it when flights are delayed because we know how it makes you feel.  It makes us feel that way too, and contrary to what you might think, we do everything we possibly can to rectify the situation.  That’s why I broke the speed limit on the way to airport after receiving the call – no, I didn’t, honestly – well, maybe I pushed seventy-one – and that’s why this brilliant crew will do everything they can to make your flight as pleasant as possible.’

There was more.  I’m only giving you the snippets I can recall.  Almost everything the pilot said was delivered with empathy, humility and humour.  The passengers, after initial wariness, were laughing in all the right places, rolling their eyes on cue and smiling ruefully when prompted by a shared frustration.  He got it just right.  There was complete silence on board (apart from the roar of the… whatever it is that roars when you’re on a plane that’s standing still) and we were all, with eager faces, turned towards him listening to every word.

He continued with this: ‘So listen, if you’re feeling frustrated, don’t take it out on the cabin crew.  It’s not their fault.  Don’t take it out on your wife.  It’s not her fault.  You can take it out on your husband, because he probably deserves it.  I’m a husband, so I know.  But seriously, I’m the pilot, so come and take it out on me.’

Anyone who had been reluctant to cast aside their annoyance was submitting by now and laughing along with the rest of us.  Grown men were guffawing.  He’d just done this magical thing – he had reached out to husbands.  It was a masterful moment.

When he delivered his final flourish, it was to an audience who were sold.  There was no more need for convincing.  He could have said anything and it would have been right.  He said this: ‘It is my great pleasure and privilege to be your pilot today.  I’ve flown around quite a lot so you’ve got nothing to worry about.  I will get you to…  what’s the name of that airport again? Oh yes, Luton… I will get you to Luton, or somewhere close, so please just sit back, relax and allow this fantastic cabin crew look after you.’

He got a round of applause.  The people all exulting with approval.

Well, you can imagine the state I was in.  Lack of tissues notwithstanding, I could not stop the flow of tears.  Any spontaneous, collective show of emotion finishes me off.  I was clapping and crying at the same time.  My mood had completely shifted.  I genuinely no longer felt grumpy, or even tired, and I certainly didn’t feel angry anymore.  I felt… happy.

The pilot had shown great leadership.  He had apologised unreservedly at the start.  It was a genuine apology that had been delivered with empathy.  He had presented himself to us as a human being.  Someone fallible, responsible, humble.  His apology hadn’t threatened his authority, rather it had augmented it.  He had taken full responsibility for the situation, not because it was his fault, but because he was our pilot – and that’s what pilots do.

He had openly recognised his team. Through his praise, he had alleviated any grumpiness in the crew who were now bustling with pride and being delightful to everyone. He had demonstrated to us that this was a team to be trusted.  He had diverted any negative attention away from his cabin crew and onto him, although of course, by that time, there was no negativity that needed to be directed anywhere.  He had made us feel special, glad almost that we had endured this delay, because now we were on this flight, with this crew and this pilot.  Instead of having a plane full of grumpy, fractious passengers he now had a plane full of placated, happy passengers.  Genius.

Suitably cheery, we readied ourselves for take off.  As we were doing so, an air stewardess came over and spoke to two people who were sitting in the three joined seats in the row front of me.  She asked them if they would mind moving to the middle of the plane because a mother and her two small children hadn’t been allocated adjacent seats and they really wanted to sit together.  For some unfathomable reason (“but I need to get off the plane quickly when we land because I have a meeting to attend” – sorry, what?) the people in front were not instantly willing so I immediately piped up and said that the young Spanish woman and I would happily move to the middle of the plane.

The young Spanish woman was slightly surprised by this, but perfectly willing to be commandeered to a new seat in solidarity for the poor mother who had been separated from her children.  The mother herself was beside herself with gratitude and the air stewardess looked genuinely relieved that the problem was solved and we could be on our way.

Somewhere over France, whilst the swaying mass enjoyed tax-free shopping, it struck me that this was an example of what Andy Buck calls discretionary effort.  I need not have offered to move; I was not being asked to do so.  I wanted to.  This may have been because I am a thoroughly decent human being, of course, but I suspect I was helped by the culture and climate the pilot had created.  What he ‘did’, resulted in how I ‘felt’, which resulted in my offer to help.  This is what we want to inspire in the people we lead; a willingness to go the extra mile, and to do so generously, in the spirit of the culture that has been created – and to contribute to it.

Later on in the flight, the young Spanish woman and I enjoyed complimentary drinks and snacks in return for our kindness.  The pilot may not have been aware of any of this, but in my mind it was on his express instruction.  Now that’s good leadership.

When safe and sound at Luton, I made a bit of a fool of myself by running after the pilot in baggage collection.  In the absence of bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths, I thanked him and asked if I could take his photograph.  He must have thought I was a lunatic.  I told him I was going to blog about him because he had crystallised aspects of leadership that many of us could learn from.  He seemed slightly bemused, but genuinely pleased.

If you recognise him, please could you pass him a message?  Can you tell him this:

O Pilot! My Pilot! I am very grateful for the impromptu lesson in leadership;  I appreciated your candour, humility and humour, but next time – please let me take my bag on board!

(Unsolicited use of the poetic form borrowed in reverence from Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain – a favourite of educators everywhere)




Waterman Learning offers leadership training to schools and businesses.  Please click here for more details.  

Ditching CPD (or Vivienne’s Vision)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene II).

I have considered this quotation in a new light since hearing Vivienne Porritt’s presentation on Professional Learning and Development at the Evolve Alliance Visioning and Leadership conference.  This is curious considering it wasn’t Vivienne that mentioned Romeo and Juliet, it was Andy Buck (he gave an example of a student’s exam response to the question: How does Romeo’s character develop throughout the play? Answer: It doesn’t, it’s just self, self, self all the way through).  So why does Vivienne’s presentation prompt me to reconsider Shakespeare’s words? It is because she began by talking about the names we use to describe what is commonly referred to as CPD –  and made me consider what they mean.

Vivienne talked about the C in CPD and revealed that it was used merely to distinguish CPD from the I in ITT (as opposed to a noble claim towards learning that is on-going).  Who knew?  She lamented that INSET sounds like something that happens in prison and lambasted ‘training’ as something you do when you want to run a race.

What I love about Vivienne (this is the third time I have seen her speak at an event) is that she challenges you to question what you think you know.  She asked us all to describe what we understood by CPD (or whatever term we chose to use).  When Vivienne asks a question, she asks it of the whole room.  She pauses (you hold your breath) and then she demands an answer.  It’s quite scary.

We stumbled for a response, and slowly, table by table, we offered up a range of definitions.  The first three were about ‘improvement’, the fourth mentioned ‘children’.  Vivienne, who is like a headteacher you’re desperate to please but frightens you to death, holds your words in the air and then bats them back at you in the form of questions that you are praying are rhetorical.  It is unnerving, and not for the faint-hearted, but by God it makes you think. Why did it take us so long to mention children? Why is our default word ‘improvement’? What does ‘improvement’ suggest?  Why don’t we ever feel good enough?

When we talk about teachers, the word we don’t use is ‘learning’, which is curious considering we do talk of students learning.  Teachers and leaders cannot improve unless they learn, so there is no point in talking about improvement in isolation.  It is not something that magically happens.  The learning has to happen first.  Again, we know this of students, so why don’t we apply this to ourselves? Words matter.  As teachers and leaders, we need to decide on the words we use because language creates culture.  A focus on improvement detracts from a focus on learning.

Vivienne’s vision is for PLD: Professional Learning & Development.  The distinction she draws between learning and development is a game-changer.  Learning is about opportunities and experiences (the easy stuff) whereas development is about application, practice, failure and persistence (the hard stuff).  This is easier to understand in a table:


In her inimitable style, Vivienne asked us to offer a percentage for the time given to professional learning and professional development in school.  The results will not surprise you.  90% / 10% at worst, 70% / 30% at best.  How ironic.  The process that could have the most impact, bring about the most sustained change and have a significant effect on children’s learning is marginalised.  Instead, Vivienne tells us sarcastically, we’re having are “amazing experiences, and that’s all.”

It takes a very brave SLT to see professional learning and development in this way.  Most SLTs will focus on ‘the easy stuff’.  This is invariably through ‘sending’ someone on a course (“please don’t send anyone anywhere,” asks Vivienne) or by providing a menu of opportunities in schools/MATs/TSAs.  Many of these experiences and opportunities will be very good, but they’re only truly meaningful if they are allowed to simmer and infuse into your practice.

The issue is that those in charge of teacher learning and development in school begin by creating or providing opportunities and then try and evaluate the impact.  This is a noble trap that I have fallen into myself.  It seems like a great idea, doesn’t it? You want your school’s CPD to be varied, personalised and engaging so you create a wide range of opportunities for your staff to access.  You ask your staff to complete an evaluation form and you feel satisfied that you are doing a good job. Oh dear.

Did I feel that Vivienne was telling me off for being so short-sighted? Yes. Did I mind? No. Faced with a list of ground-breaking research papers about professional learning and development and the question, “how many of these have you read?” I admit I squirmed.  Why had I, a Deputy Headteacher for 9 years who had responsibility for Teaching and Learning NOT read this research? Why did I think that I could design and implement a truly meaningful approach to teacher learning and development with NO background reading or research? What arrogance, what blindness, what folly.

We have a responsibility as educators to base our strategy for teacher learning on evidence-based practices, respected research and tried-and-tested approaches. This would help us to understand that what really makes the difference is not the opportunities and experiences that we offer to teachers, but the time taken to develop, practice and apply the learning gained.  Vivienne summed this up beautifully when she said that what we want to hear from our teachers is this; “thank you for giving me that opportunity; I estimate that the time I’m going to need to apply that technique and achieve the impact we’re after is about three months, during which I will practise, probably mess it up, but keep trying and then, when I’m ready, can someone come and watch me in action and give me some feedback? When I’m confident it’s having the intended impact, I’ll help someone else with it.”

In a conversation like this, the impact has been decided first.  The learning opportunity is chosen based on the intended impact AND what the research suggests is the best way of achieving that impact. This seems like a far more robust model than a ever-so-slightly cocky and probably-promoted-too-quickly deputy headteacher making it up as she goes along.  Sigh.

Making the shift from an input model to an impact model and asking the impact question at the start, not the end, is a transformational approach as far as I can see.  Prioritising the development time above the learning time is also revolutionary, albeit with implications for time and capacity that form the challenges faced by all school leaders.  Vivienne talked about courageous SLTs who prioritise the tough stuff instead of being satisfied with the easy stuff.  Vivienne talked about school leaders realising their own agency to pursue their moral purpose.  Vivienne talked about knowing the difference you want to make first, and then being able to evaluate it meaningfully.

As she talked, Vivienne eyeballed us.  She put us on the spot.  She was compelling and terrifying all at once.  Here she is doing her best Headteacher impression:


And so, because there is so much in a name (sorry Juliet), I am ditching CPD and adopting PLD.

And Vivienne, waving one’s arms around is a perfectly reasonable way to present at a conference (PLD does not stand for Porritt Looks Demented) especially if it has this much impact. Thank you.







Visioning and Leadership

“Too often we think about outcomes, but the outcomes have already been defined for us.”  This was the first statement that got me questioning my practice at the Evolve Alliance Visioning and Leadership Conference.  Michael Pain (who looks much younger than I expected) also prompted me to think about ‘the why?’ – but not in the way I expected.  He said that the ‘why?’ is noble, but abstract, and that we do our staff and our students a disservice if we leave it abstract. This was picked up beautifully by Jonathan Newport (who thinks he looks older than we would expect) later that day when he asked us to articulate the ‘why?’ through our leadership behaviours.

Thinking about leadership behaviours is the easy part; being brave enough to ‘live’ them is more difficult – but absolutely crucial.  If we don’t, we run the risk of the behaviours constraining the ‘why?’ and all of a sudden we are working in silos; suspicious, cynical and self-serving.  The very the act of ‘unpacking’ the behaviours (by asking  – what is our purpose? how do we behave?) creates buy-in, which creates connections, which creates culture.  Jonathan demonstrated the power of culture with a powerful human experiment.  He asked us to stand on either side of the room depending on whether we liked or disliked Marmite.  Here we are:



I have to admit, I didn’t really get the analogy to start with.  I suspected it was just a way of getting us to our feet after a big lunch.  But when Jonathan told us that we walked to our positions silently, heads down, like monks and then erupted into chatter when we joined people with whom we had a shared love or hate for Marmite, it made sense.  That is the power of culture.  Our human instinct is to connect with others who are like-minded.  Commonality of moral purpose creates a culture in exactly the same way as does a preference for a yeast-based spread.

Moral purpose was the golden thread running through the day.  Michael roused us to be the guardians of childhood and Andy Buck (who looks younger than his career pathway would suggest) reminded us that we are here for all the children, not just the ones in our schools.  Jonathan started with ‘why do we exist?’ (an educational, not an existential question) and all three talked passionately about the challenges facing our region, our specific contexts and the power of cross-school collaboration to bring about social change.  The collaboration they called for was one which transcends the artificial boundaries created by phases, sectors, school-types, multi-academy trusts and jigsaws.



When he wasn’t tricking us with jigsaws or numbers, Andy challenged us to think about the difference between culture and climate.  Something I’d never really considered before, to be honest.  I usually use the terms interchangeably.  No longer.

Culture = what we do.

Climate = how it feels.

This distinction resonated strongly with me.  The culture creates the climate.  The climate has the power to enable or constrain.  Candour about the need to inspire discretionary effort and frankness about the challenge of teacher retention (two crucial issues for school leaders) will only be possible for leadership teams that know the ‘why?’ the ‘what?’ and the ‘how?’

From a very personal perspective, Andy challenged me to reconsider the prejudice I have against MATS.  Not everyone is empire-building, so seek out authenticity and be open to the opportunities for shared purpose and expertise.  A further challenge came when Andy asked us to consider what success looks like.  The lovely Natalie from The Brunts Academy who was sitting next to me made me realise that my natural inclination for the abstract makes me fall prey to the disservice Michael talked about at the start.  While I was talking about the intangible, unmeasurable successes, Natalie said, “we need to think about what success looks like for the teacher with 26 lessons a week.” Yes! That is exactly the kind of challenging question that SLTs need to ask if we want to generate emotional investment in a shared vision.  And that is exactly why it’s so important to engage with people you meet at a conference.

The Evolve Alliance Trust conference truly challenged me to think about vision and leadership.  I learned far more than I can communicate in this short blog.  I was forced to consider age-worn truths through new eyes, to turn preconceived ideas back to front and to honestly reflect on my skills as a leader.  I came away feeling empowered to be part of a change in education and a movement towards ethical leadership where we define our own outcomes, instead of accepting those defined for us.


Where is Vivienne?

You will have noticed, reader, that I have not mentioned Vivienne Porritt.  Vivienne was one of the four keynote speakers at the conference.  She gave a presentation about her great passion – professional learning and development.  Please know that I have not  omitted Vivienne as an act of either conscious or unconscious gender bias, I have simply decided to write about what I learned from Vivienne in a separate blog.  The topic of professional learning and development, and Vivienne’s very particular style of delivery, requires a dedicated space.


Emotionality as strength in leadership

This is (as promised) a blog of my presentation at the third national WomenEd unconference.  I will, in another blog, talk about my reflections of the whole day.  It was my first ever WomenEd event, so there is a lot I want to say.  Here though, is my rather passionate presentation in blog form.  I hope it translates well. It includes some things that, in my nervousness, I left out.

What is emotionality?

Lots of people I speak to say, ’emotionality? Is that a thing?’  Their question is usually accompanied by a skeptical look which is really saying, ‘why don’t you just use the word emotion? Why are you making up pretentious, academic-sounding words?’

Emotionality is a thing.  And a word.  There is a dictionary definition, but I prefer to reference Norman Denzin’s 1984 work On Understanding Emotion. Denzin used the term emotionality to describe culturally situated and interrelated emotions.  In other words, the range of emotions that are experienced within organisations, between people and in response to situations.  This is different to a perspective of emotion which is purely psychological and inherently personal.  Emotionality is not only about the emotions you feel privately inside you, it is about the emotions that you feel as a result of and during interactions with other people.  It is about the emotions you consider, use and are moved by when you are working with people. This strikes me as a perfect word, therefore, to describe the emotions one feels as a headteacher, or indeed any school leader, because your principal role is in interaction with others.  Dr Brenda Beatty also used the word in her 2000 work Breaking the Silence where she described it as “our emotional meaning-making system.”

You can’t be a headteacher!

Although emotionality is something I have only come across as a term in recent years, I realise it has been a key part of my leadership style for a long time.  Let me explain.

When I was a head of English fourteen years ago, an aspiring head of English shadowed me for the day.  She came with me into my lessons, into the lesson of a struggling teacher I observed that day, and to the feedback session I gave afterwards.  She came to the impromptu talk I had with a distressed parent who was making a complaint about one my team, and to the subsequent talk I had with the team member in question.  She also sat in on an incident I dealt with at lunchtime when my NQT had a meltdown and she tagged along when I had a tough meeting with the Deputy Head about progress.  Finally, she came into the department meeting I was chairing after school where I broke the news that we were having an internal inspection next week.

When all of that was over, we sat down together and reflected on the day.  It was great, she said.  She learned a great deal.  She then asked me what my career plans were.  I said (like I say to anyone who asks), ‘I want to be a headteacher.’

She laughed.  Actually laughed.  Which threw me, I have to admit.  Was it so preposterous that I wanted to be a headteacher? Why was that so ridiculous? I gathered myself together enough to say, ‘why is that so funny?’ To which, she replied, ‘you can’t be a headteacher, you’re too nice!’

Too nice.  Oh dear.  I reflected on what that meant.  Firstly, it was a reflection of what she’d seen me do that day; I had comforted, supported, listened, empathised, encouraged, explained and placated.  The difficult situations had been approached with candour, kindness and clarity.  I hadn’t raised my voice at any point, I hadn’t used a stern tone, I hadn’t been dismissive, or cold, or belligerent. I had been me.  Warm, connected, human.

Secondly, it was a reflection of her perception of what a headteacher should be.  Clearly, her ‘prototype’ of a leader was the complete opposite to me. It knocked me, I have to admit, but it prompted me to examine leadership in a much more critical way – which kick-started my fascination with emotionality.  So thank you, aspiring-head-of-English-who-laughed-at-me.  I’m afraid I don’t remember your name.

Is emotion unreliable?

My warm, human, empathetic approach is intrinsically emotional.  It is because I am an emotional person that I relate to people the way I do. My emotionality underpins the decisions I make, the strategies I adopt and the words I use.  I have never considered my emotionality to be unreliable, because it is, as Denzin says, “the truth that touches the heart …the truth that lies at the inner core of the moral person …the truth that connects us to the world and society.”  My emotionality is driven by my values, and why wouldn’t I want my leadership approach to be a product of my values?

Turns out I am quite unusual.  During my Master’s degree reading I realised that emotions have historically been regarded as unreliable, primitive, animal-like.  I learned from Lazarus, who in Cognition and Motivation in Emotion (1991), explained that from Aristotle, through medieval religious dogma, to the Enlightment, and into dominant Western culture, reason has been enthroned as God-like and that cultural biases have perpetuated the completely accepted binary between emotion and reason, where reason is given primacy and emotion is seen as a “pesky interloper” (words borrowed from the great Brenda Beatty – more on her later).

When you position yourself as someone in opposition to the whole of the history of humankind (that’s how it felt – I know it’s an exaggeration), it knocks your confidence. You start to question yourself.  Maybe I am too emotional to be a headteacher? Maybe my emotionality does make me weak? Perhaps I’d be a rubbish headteacher? Despite the feelings of self-doubt, augmented by reading about emotion as an “ever-present ghost of cultural disdain” (Boler, 2007) I kept coming back to what Sachs and Blackmore (1998) said about the discourses of schooling privileging head-work over heart-work.  I wanted to be a headteacher who did the opposite.

To be or not to be…. a headteacher

The opportunity arose to apply for a headship, so I did.  I was feeling motivated by the prospect of authentic, values-driven leadership, but I was also feeling complete and utter terror.  Honestly, I was terrified – of the interview, of not getting the job and of getting the job.  I had just recently become aware of the WomenEd movement (I was only just getting to grips with Twitter) but I didn’t really know what it was.  I had read a few brilliant tweets from some headteacher called Hannah Wilson.  I didn’t really have a clue who she was, but she had a nice face, so I thought I would be really cheeky and ask her for some advice.  I sent her a DM thinking that she would probably ignore me, and quite right too – why on earth should she respond to a request for advice from someone she didn’t know?

Here is my DM:

Hello Hannah, My name is Carly. I’m a Deputy Head in Northampton and I’m going for a Headship interview this week. I wonder if I might ask your advice? I’m struggling to manage my fear. Deep down I know I can do this, but self doubt is ringing in my ears. Do you have any suggestions for how I might stop the fear turning me into a quivering wreck? The interview is Monday. I realise I am asking you this over the weekend which is precious time. Please only respond if you have a moment to spare and don’t worry if you don’t.  Many thanks. Carly.

What she gave me was so much more than I could ever have expected. The generosity she showed floored me.  And her advice? Amazing.  Here it is

Hannah WilsonHi Carly

Hannah WilsonArianna Huffington wrote a book called fearless females for her daughter. Lots of great advice.

Hannah WilsonShe challenges us to consider butterflies of fear as butterflies of anticipation.

Hannah WilsonTurn the negative into a positive.

Hannah WilsonI know affirmations help – write down how you want to show up & be seen E.g I am a confident competent courageous leader.

Hannah WilsonLook in the mirror & say it ten times out loud in morning, before bed for next few days.

Hannah WilsonIf you can’t say it & believe it then they won’t.

Hannah WilsonFor inspiration watch the Amy Cuddy ted talk on power poses – also brilliant for mindset shift & confidence boost. Do it in the shower the next few days.

Hannah WilsonI find writing things down helps me – make a list of all your fears – then counter each one with the leader you are, the impact you have, the vision you have.

Hannah WilsonIf you have a loud inner critic voice give it a name and tell it to pipe down!

Hannah WilsonEach strategy seems trivial but collectively will make you feel empowered.

Hannah WilsonIf you are a nervous speaker make bullet point noted to take in with you or read before.

Hannah WilsonUltimately be you, but be the best version of you. Be confident you have been shortlisted. Celebrate that. Not many get their first one so see it as a learning experience – get from it what you need to develop & grow.

Hannah WilsonBelieve you will get the job, talk with affirmation about our school etc mirror their language/ ethos/ values back but ultimately know it is about fit – you are interviewing them too – how will they support you.

Hannah WilsonAnd if they offer you it – negotiate!!

Hannah WilsonWhat training, support do you need? Go higher than you are prepared to accept. Then you won’t feel short changed.

Hannah WilsonSorry for brain dump – hope that helps. Good luck!! Xx Ps come to WomenEd Leicester on 24/6?

Carly WatermanBlimey! Messaging you was a great decision! This is just what I needed. Thank you. So grateful for such an inspirational brain dump! I already feel better. I will do all of those things and I will be the best version of me. Thank you.

Carly Waterman24/6 – if I can, I will.

Hannah WilsonDm if you have a wobble. But best of luck

She really has got such a lovely face! But also, what a lovely person.  How incredible, to receive DM after DM after DM – each with brilliant nuggets of advice.  (I am thrilled that I finally got to meet Hannah in person at the WomenEd Unconference on 30th September. I wanted to shake her hand – instead I got a huge hug!)

So, armed with Hannah’s advice, I wrote down my fears, I talked at myself in the mirror, I named my inner voice Doris and told her to take a hike and I watched the Amy Cuddy TED talk.  I did power poses in the shower on the morning of the interview and all the way there in the car and in the loo when I got there.  And I can tell you, I was ON FIRE! I was SO good.  I was answering every question brilliantly, I was getting fantastic feedback from everyone, my lesson was amazing, the panel discussions were electric, I talked about my values and my vision, I got through to the final three; I enthused, I inspired, I emoted out of my skin and then..

I didn’t get the job.

I was devastated.  The Chair of Governors spoke to me afterwards.  His feedback? I was too passionate.  Too passionate.  I’m still unable to articulate in words what that did to me.  What I can tell you is this: they appointed a middle-aged white man to replace the middle-aged white man that was leaving.  And I want to assure you, I have nothing against middle-aged white men – I am married to one.

The metaphors of school leadership

Whilst all this was happening I was completing my Master’s research.  I was interviewing headteachers to explore whether they felt constrained or enabled to be emotional in their role.  A number of the headteachers I spoke to talked about school leadership using the metaphors of warfare.  Common words and phrases included: under siege, in battle, in combat, on the offensive, on the defensive, under fire, bombarded, under attack and on the front line.

The warfare metaphors symbolised a lack of emotionality.  One of the participants talked about emotionality as a chink in their armour that, once exposed, would be exploited as a weakness.  What became clear was that many headteachers (not all) felt that they had to be cold, distant, unemotional – exactly the kind of headteacher that the aspiring-head-of-English from long ago had regarded as a ‘prototype’.  The current educational climate was to blame: the neo-liberal agenda, performativity, high-stakes testing, pressure from the DfE, from Ofsted, from parents, from MAT trusts, from Governors, from every angle it seemed.  I started to feel glad that I hadn’t got the job.

Free to be my imperfect self

Whilst analysing my data and writing my conclusions, I came to a personal and professional epiphany.  I am myself and that is good enough.  If I am passionate, and emotional, and warm and empathetic, that does not make me any less of a leader.  Dr Brenda Beatty, in her incredible research, found that open and shared emotionality makes you a better leader – a more human, connected leader who can operate with authenticity because you know that everything you do is driven by your values.  Research into Wounded Leaders by Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski (2004) told me the same thing: that the non-negotiable that I come back to most often is being true to myself.  I am free to be my imperfect self.

A reconfigured view of leadership

And so, in my research, and in my WomenEd presentation, I offer up this: a reconfigured view of leadership.  One which does not blame the educational context, but instead prioritises the agential responsibility of headteachers to set the emotional tone of a school, to open a space for vulnerability, and fallibility and feeling – and not see them as weakness, but as strength.  I see it like this: if you are unemotional, you risk not communicating your values, and what can be more important to a school community than shared values?

A lot of leadership is performance and, for some, that performance is cold, distant, over-rationalised, mechanised and unemotional.  Interestingly, the headteachers I interviewed recoiled from the concept of performance; as if admitting you ‘performed’ meant that you were admitting you were pretending or offering something false or superficial.  My reconfigured view of emotional leadership embraces the idea of performance, but asks leaders to disassociate it with the idea of ‘acting’ and see it more as ‘accomplishment’ (as we do in sport or music); to see it less as artifice, and more as artistry.  Emotionality gives you the agency to do this.

Final word

If you have made it this far, I salute you.

I ended my WomenEd presentation by sharing my risky career decision.  I decided to leave my wonderful job as Deputy Headteacher of a fantastic school (Northampton School for Girls) and go freelance.  I am now an independent education adviser, coach and trainer (I still can’t bring myself to use the word consultant, but that is, in fact, what I am).  I have not abandoned my goal to be a headteacher, but I need to spread my wings and get more experience.  Also, if I am to be a headteacher, I need it to be in a school that embraces my vision for leadership, that can accept me as a passionate, emotional human being and see that as my great strength.  If that means I have to wait, so be it.  Perhaps I will set up my own school.  We will see.


Thank you to everyone who attended my session and for those of you who tweeted or who spoke to me afterwards.  I cannot tell you how much your support means to me.

In the session, as part of our shared reconfigured view of leadership, we rejected the warfare metaphors and composed new ones:

  • Leadership is a team-sport: with a manager, coaches, medics, publicists, players and supporters – where everyone is working to a common goal.
  • Leadership is about being naked, being prepared to be seen for who you truly are – an authentic human being.
  • Leadership is a river running down a mountain, fed by tributaries, but flowing into a never-full sea of potential.  There may be whirlpools and eddies on the way to the sea, but the water always finds its way, nourishing the land as it goes.
  • Leadership is a garden, which we nurture and grow.  There may be weeds, and they may be beautiful, but they need dealt with.  We can deal with them by removing them or surrounding them with flowers.  We would not use weedkiller, because that can contaminate the soil and cause destruction, so we will treat them gently, but firmly and they will either become part of the garden, or have to go.

I may not have faithfully represented all the ideas that were offered – so please feel free to comment and expand on them.

Final word – I promise.

I had intended to use music in my presentation, but I couldn’t get the tech to work.

I was going to include snippets from the following songs (not sure if links will work):

  • Hands, by Jewel https://youtu.be/AfsS3pIDBfw
  • Girl on Fire, by Alicia Keys https://youtu.be/J91ti_MpdHA
  • Defying Gravity, from Wicked, by Idina Menzel https://youtu.be/Yf9Bt5WFZKs
  • Standing with an Army, by Ellie Goulding https://youtu.be/jTTNWpag6fI

Perhaps we can start to compile a WomenEd soundtrack!