23 March 2021 | Trust blog
This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Dan Morrow, CEO of Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust. The blog does not reflect the views of the MAT as a whole or of the Trustees. D-notes blogs are offered as a stimulus for reflection and as a provocation for discussion.
When I was starting out in teaching, I was often praised for my insight and decisiveness with decision-making. I can process information quickly and come to my own reasoned conclusion at speed. Having come from a commercial background into teaching at a challenging inner city school, I was struck by how many decisions were not, in my opinion, being made speedily nor indeed at all. As I rapidly gained promotion, this aspect of being decisive began to breed in me an unhealthy sense that I was the one in the room most likely to be right; that quick meant good and that good meant action. In the mid to late 2000s this style of leadership, the “Soldier” and the “Surgeon” ( The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School (hbr.org) were in fact celebrated and lauded. The intoxicating impact of both praise and what was deemed rapid impact led to a Command and Control style predicated on decisiveness. Making a decision in many ways became prized above the quality and lasting impact of the decision itself. By 2009 my view was shifting rapidly. On a personal note the weight of being at the apex of decision-making, of having created a circumstance where I wasn’t just expected to always know but presented as if I always did, took a toll. Equally, for the school I was leading there was the emergence of a funnel in decision making that was professionally frustrating but my own responsibility. I knew this and it took mentoring and coaching from outstanding leaders to help me to understand I needed to invert the pyramid; to coach, not tell. To listen more than I spoke.
The impact of this was immediate and profound- the teams I led were so much more obviously empowered and the distribution of not just leadership but decision-making helped to craft a culture of agency and of autonomy- anchored but not weighed down by the culture we all shared and refined. I went from being a leader of results to a leader of culture and as consequently the results took care of themselves. I intuitively began to see the impact of being architectural as a leader and to work in the spirit of true cooperation which goes beyond what collaboration can achieve. At first this manifested rather glibly with cliches such as “bring me the solution not the problem” but over time as I matured as a person and as a leader I started to understand the role that listening, and I mean really listening, plays in giving the confidence and skills needed for colleagues to actualise their own knowledge and skills.
Joining DMAT has taken me back to those days and I have needed to re-remember some lessons; our growth is cyclical rather than linear and sometimes we have to go back to prior learning to avoid our own temperamental defaults. For me, I like to get things done; I like to be positive and future focused and I cannot bear to see a day wasted for our children. Upon arrival, I have been praised for quick decision-making and for removing some historic blocks to our progress. It would be easy to preen and to see this as a positive, but instead it tells me the work we all need to do on our culture to ensure that decision-making rests where it most effectively sits; within our classrooms. There is no doubt that there are times when rapid decisions must be made and it needs to be in every leaders toolkit- equally so there are times when we can let things go and really think about what also needs to be heard. I was reminded of this most recently by a wonderful blog by Dr Jill Berry (Let it go…. – jillberry102)
‘Which are the boulders that may slow the water, but the stream will continue to flow around them? What are the barriers that are causing so much obstruction and damage that you need to take time, working with others, to remove them? And sometimes we have to find compromises if we’re to move forward. I feel uneasy when the adjective ‘uncompromising’ is equated with leadership strength.’
Decisiveness has its place and always will; but it neither supplants the importance of truly listening nor should it be the default in how we interact and work with colleagues. In fact, I genuinely see some of my decisiveness in the early days of being Trust Leader at DMAT as a weakness that I need to reflect on and to improve; I am not here to make decisions for people- I am here to make it with you.