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27 November 2023

The Monday Briefing: Pretender

The Monday Briefing: Pretender

A cynical person might ask why anyone would take on a voluntary role beyond their responsibilities, particularly when the individual taking on the extra tasks has a significant job in the first instance. One might simply ask, “what’s the point in that?”

Towards the end of my first year as Principal, I nominated myself as a candidate to become Vice Chair of the London North group of the Independent Schools Association (ISA), and was elected to a position I’ve been delighted to serve in ever since. I’ve supplemented that over the last year by becoming Chair of Governors at Reddiford School in Pinner, lending my expertise to the running of an institution which teaches children at ages lower than those I am working with day-to-day. In addition to that, I was elected to the Executive Council of the ISA last May, and I’ve enjoyed attending online meetings to discuss arising issues.

My first in person Council meeting was on Saturday, and I was not reluctant to give up a day of my weekend to attend in central London.

There are several reasons for taking the actions I have to widen my experience, and reach, beyond the College.

First and foremost, exploring these new ventures links directly to an improved capacity to lead the College well. Taking on a position as Chair of Governors allows me to increase my capacity in governance, seeing it from another perspective. Much as a hotel owner improves their practice through the feedback of their guests, my important role in helping to provide advice in governance for another school improves the way I seek to support the governance at Ealing, in an effort to raise standards within the institution. To extend the analogy, that same hotel owner, through visiting other hotels, is able to avoid an insular approach, averse to any new ideas which could make things better.

This was also apparent in the meeting I attended on Saturday. Being party to the key concerns of the sector, hearing the concerns of other Heads, and by extension, the Heads in their respective areas, allows me to get a sense of the potential hazards which lie down the track for the College. I’ve always been a strategic thinker, who considers the steps needed to ensure progress in the long term. Being able to understand the conditions across the sector enables me to sharpen that approach for the students at Ealing.

In addition, the connections I’ve been able to make through my additional roles have certainly developed my knowledge of who to go to in order to seek advice within the fellowship of association schools. This has probably been most apparent through my role as Vice Chair of the London North area within ISA. This relationship goes two ways - whilst benefiting from fresh perspectives, new ideas and novel approaches when problems arise, I’ve also been able to assist colleagues when they may have run into difficulties. I see this as part of my duty as well as forming a learning experience for me personally. When committed and dedicated professionals get together to share good practice, positive change can spread like wildfire, and the momentum can become utterly inspiring. This happens well in the Bellevue group of schools, and it also occurs amongst those committed to ISA.

I can see reasons why some of my peers within the industry may not be able to explore these opportunities - the time and mental load required to be a Headteacher in the times in which we live has reached a level of demand which can be all consuming, and the strains on a work-life balance, accordingly, can bring matters to breaking point.

But where one can seek to widen one’s expertise, experience and resources which one can draw on, then one must.

The biggest obstacle which I felt that I had to overcome in order to access such opportunities was imposter syndrome: as a relatively new Headteacher, did I have any right to be in such esteemed company? What could I possibly contribute to the continued progression of schools beyond my own small school environment? Didn’t I have too much to learn to be of any use to others?

My thinking then was just as my thinking now: where there is a challenge, it’s up to me to find the strength and resolve to rise to it. 

And the sooner I start to meet that challenge, the better I’ll be at beating it.

Confidence is something which can be hard won, and easily lost. It can be elusive at times, abundant in others. I’ve become better at harnessing it when the challenges come: the difficult parent meetings; the investigations into incidents when all sides deny involvement; presenting to those I respect; taking the lead in initiatives previously out of my comfort zone. I still have doubts - just not as many as I used to.

It’s not as simple as ‘faking it until you make it.’ I’m very happy to bow to the wisdom of Simon Sinek in this respect. As he states:

‘I don’t believe in full-on acting, in pretending you can do something which you can’t. What I do believe in is pushing your limits. I do believe in over-promising, and then delivering. I’d prefer to call it pushing your boundaries and realising you’re capable of more, rather than faking it until you make it.’

My levels of self-confidence, self-assurance and self-awareness did not just appear. They took time, and they are built on the Presbyterian Scottish foundations of having a ‘quiet ego’, something I discussed at length with the CEO of Bellevue Education Mark Malley when he visited the College on Wednesday. He had noticed the difference in the College since his last visit around 18 months ago. He remarked on how the culture of the College, and, indeed, of any school takes much from the personal character of the Headteacher.

I would like for nothing more than the students at the College to embrace the concept of the quiet ego, and use it to guide their own development. Most of them, without noticing it, are gravitating more and more towards it, because that is the approach we actively promote day in day out.

What is so great about a quiet ego is that it is not a silent ego. As Jack Bauer, Heidi Wayment, and Kateryna Sylaska, who are leading the way in this line of research, put it, “The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” The quiet ego brings others into the self without losing the self - to listen, consider and make the right decisions in the name of progress.

According to Bauer and Wayment, the quiet ego consists of four interconnected facets: detached awareness, inclusive identity, perspective-taking, and personal growth. These four characteristics all contribute to having a general stance of balance and growth toward the self and others, and for progress of all.

The researchers created a test to measure these four facets.

Facet #1: Detached awareness

The statements testing detached awareness include:

  • “I find myself doing things without paying much attention.”
  • “I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what I’m doing.”
  • “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.”

Those with a quiet ego score low on these items: they are intensely mindful and aware of their surroundings. They are focused on the immediate moment without judgement or preconceived ideas about how the moment should unfold. This non-defensive attitude toward the present moment is associated with many positive life outcomes.

Facet #2: Inclusive identity

Inclusive identity statements include:

  • “I feel a connection to all living things.”
  • “I feel a connection with strangers.”
  • “I feel a connection to people of other races.”

People whose egos are turned down in volume score higher in this facet. If your identity is inclusive, you’re likely to be cooperative and compassionate toward others rather than only working to help yourself.

Facet #3: Perspective taking

Perspective taking statements include:

  • “Before criticising somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.”
  • “When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to put myself in his or her shoes for a while.” 
  • “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

By reflecting on other viewpoints, the quiet ego brings attention outside the self, increasing empathy and compassion. What matters with this one, for me, is how quickly I can process these stages properly.

Facet #4: Personal growth

Finally, personal growth statements include:

  • “For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.”
  • “I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.”

Personal growth and detached awareness complement each other nicely: detached awareness is all about the present moment, whereas personal growth is all about contemplating the longer-term implications of the present moment. Both are part of the quiet ego since both are focused on dynamic processes rather than evaluation of the final product.

The researchers found that those with a quiet ego reported being more interested in personal growth and balance and tended to seek growth through competence, autonomy, and positive social relationships. While a quiet ego was positively related to having a higher self-esteem, it was also related to various indicators of self-transcendence, including prosocial attitudes and behaviours.

This is consistent with the idea that a quiet ego balances compassion with self-protection and growth goals. Indeed, a quiet ego is an indication of a healthy self-esteem—one that acknowledges one’s own limitations, doesn’t need to constantly resort to defensiveness whenever the ego is threatened, and yet has a firm sense of self-worth and value.

In a sense, this is also true of the College, if one were to personify it. 

Walking around the corridors and rooms, one gains a sense that it is comfortable with itself. It knows what it can do, and what it can’t (at least not yet). It doesn’t try to hide the things that it isn’t. It favours substance over style. It knows the difference that it makes, but is always striving to do more for those who depend on it. It is caring and compassionate, tolerant and inclusive, and, above all, knows it is following the right path.

It’s the place I’m proud to lead.

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