The recipe for sustenance that we all need and so rarely enjoy

| September 6, 2010
Part Two – By Brendan Doolan

Part Three of this editorial is also available online here.


Thirty seasoned Heads gathered recently at a comfortable game lodge with two world experts on headship – Rob Evans and Michael Thompson. Brendan Doolan reflects on the shared thoughts and themes.


And then there is the dilemma of the paradox of power. The further we are away from the blackboard, the whiteboard, the data projector or the interactive whiteboard (pick your resource!), the less powerful we actually are. Theoretically we have positional power as Heads, but actually we are utterly dependent on our colleagues – for their competence, for their professionalism, for their support and for their care.

Yes, we have the instruments of appraisal on our side, and the codes of conduct and the disciplinary measures, but how difficult they are to employ in this tangled and complex business of education.

Parental transference and high-maintenance colleagues

Inextricably linked to this is the paradox of parental transference. We are so often the victims of unfinished parental business in our colleagues’ minds. Say one of our teachers grew up with a hard and critical mother, and her good and valid suggestion is turned down by a Head (usually for financial reasons!), then it can happen that she immediately feels rejected and put down by ‘mom’.

We all have such ‘high-maintenance’ colleagues. Not to say that they are necessarily bad or incompetent teachers – quite the reverse is often true – but they are nonetheless high maintenance, and our dilemma is how to make tough calls while dealing with the inevitable emotional fall-out of those calls.

Try sharing this dilemma with a mentor in business or one in another profession. Inevitably the response would either be to ‘knock them back’, or ‘just ignore them’, and yet how difficult (if not impossible) to do so with a needy and vulnerable colleague who, despite the neediness and vulnerability, is still doing a crackerjack job in the classroom.

Isolation in a fishbowl!

How very lonely it is never to be seen ‘out of role’. We are so much closer to the clergy in our profession thananything else, and yet unlike the clergy we are expected to manage or lead our tough and competitive ‘businesses’ with no privacy of relief. Despite the fact that we all know well that we are constantly talked about, it never fails to hurt and to distress us when we actually uncover and have to face the latest bit of vicious (and usually untrue) gossip.

Whether we like it or not, our constant ‘position at the pulpit’ means that everything we say or do is assessed as either giving or withholding of permission for others to do (or not do) likewise. If, in a moment of grief and agony, we let loose an expletive commencing with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet, we could tacitly be allowing our colleagues to do the same – even in much lessappropriate or pressured circumstances.

And then there is our public profile! Woe betide the Head who is not seen – everywhere! A colleague’s trenchant advice is to wear bright clothes, circulate rapidly, and be gone! We all try so hard to be ‘visible’, as if our not being at every tiddlywinks contest is conclusive evidence of our ‘aloofness’, our uncaring attitudes.

I was once at a sports event in which my 18-year-old son was representing his school in an important national contest. For some reason his Headmaster was not
there, and pockets of parents stood around moaning about the ‘slackness’ of one of the finest young Heads ever produced by this country. Despite assurances that something big must have come up, the feeding frenzy continued and gathered momentum, until we were informed that the poor fellow was in hospital with food poisoning.

I thought then, as I think now, that if parents so gleefully get stuck into a school leader who is literally head and shoulders above the rest of us, what easy shark bait we lesser mortals must be.

E = empowerment

Ah, and then empowerment! We are enjoined, gentle reader, to empower our colleagues, to get them to ‘pick up some of the slack’. “Why don’t you delegate?” asks the Chair of the Finance Committee, an auditing partner who gets no flack from his clients for sending in articled clerks who are barely nappy-trained to do the hard yards.

“This is something that your deputy should do,” intones the Chairman somberly, and yet always at the back of our minds are the nagging and anxious questions – what if I do, what if I don’t?

The problems of empowerment arise, as they so often do, from a lack of clarity about expectations. We are (rightly) irritated when we ask a member of our management team to handle a parents’ meeting and, in her youth and inexperience, she forgets to thank the parent who helped organise the meeting, or neglects to switch off the lights and lock down the hall, or is hugely embarrassed when there are no refreshments – or whatever.

It appears that our own agony about whether or not to delegate interferes when for some reason we are forced to do it, and the waters of clear communication are muddied. It is a relentless task – to clarify and to codify, to communicate the essence of our mission and vision to our colleagues. It is, further, much more possible to empower successfully when the expectations are clearly and carefully explained – written down if necessary. We will, of course, have to endure snide remarks about our
being ‘obsessive-compulsive’, but this is vastly preferable to bungled outcomes and an embarrassing post-mortem.

And then, having delegated, how important it is to allow our colleagues to fail and to falter, to pick themselves up, and to keep going – without blame or recrimination. It is hard, but fair, to say: “If you succeed, you’ll take the credit, and if you fail, I’ll take the blame.”

Get real

How easy and how comforting it is to slip into the pomposity of position, to haul out the tired old clichés when our conscience is yelling at us to ‘cut the crud’ – (or at least, in the beginning it yells at us, until after years of being ignored it dulls to a whimper and then to abject silence.)

We become self-important bores and ‘emperors with no clothes’, losing our authentic selves in a mish-mash of received opinions and second-hand judgement. Like so much in headship, we have to wrestle daily with the tension between our authentic selves and our ‘imperial’ selves. It is when we cease to wrestle that the authentic self is vanquished and the imperial self is enthroned – with or without garments!

Brendan Doolan is Principal of Chesterhouse School. Contact him at b.doolan@chesterhouse.co.za

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Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2010 Edition

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