Aspiring leaders should be taught the 3 Rs of inner work

Overly focusing on operational skill neglects inner work that is fundamental to succeeding (and remaining) in leadership, says Bukky Yusuf

Overly focusing on operational skill neglects inner work that is fundamental to succeeding (and remaining) in leadership, says Bukky Yusuf

5 Nov 2023, 5:00

I was already in my first senior role before I realised that preparing for leadership is as much (or more) about inner work as it is about what you do. From conversations with others since, it seems to me that every school leader comes to understand the importance of inner narrative, and yet it isn’t in any of the training we offer to prospective leaders. 

This critical insight only became apparent to me when my former headteacher answered a question I asked about my new role with her own question: “How do you see yourself as a leader?”

Our model for leadership preparation focuses almost entirely on the practical aspects of whole-school responsibility. We ask candidates about experience. We give ‘in-tray’ exercises at interview. But do we ask them who they are as leaders? And do we prepare them to answer that question?

Unless we squarely and regularly confront that question, we simply revert to default behaviours and attitudes whenever we are under pressure (which is almost always). Doing the ‘inner work’ of leadership helps us to understand the factors that shape these repeating patterns – and to move beyond them.

Of the many ways to frame our thinking about our thinking about ourselves as leaders, the three most fruitful lines of enquiry I’ve found are in respect of readiness, resilience and reflection.

Readiness and mindset 

There are external limitations to our work, but much of what holds us back is in our own minds. This can be a barrier we’ve erected because of past experience, a self-limiting belief we’ve internalised from those around us, or simply a lack of knowledge about the problem we are facing.

Recognising these self-imposed limitations is the first step to overcoming them. How well we do this is down to leadership mindset. It starts with recognising emotions in yourself and others, and then finding ways to move past those positively.

For example, fear of failure can be a powerful motivator, but not necessarily towards the right solution. A far safer bet is to beclear about your abilities and current limitations, and to draw on expertise from your teams and networks. This is not failure. Your teams and networks are as much your strengths as your own knowledge and capability.

Ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling and why?
  • What is the problem I am trying to solve and who can help me?
  • What will the right kind of solution look and feel like to me?

Resilience and overcoming obstacles 

It’s easy to get bogged down in operational matters. Resilience depends on reframing your thinking to make sense of what a particular situation is telling you – about your previous decisions, your approach or the nature of the challenge. Only then can you work out what to do differently.

Inspired by Andrew Gibbons, I keep a learning reflection log which has helped me to move past difficult feelings clouding my thoughts and actions. Getting emotions down on paper is cathartic, especially when you feel you can’t talk to anyone about a situation you’re dealing with. It then frees your mind up to look at alternatives more objectively.

Ask yourself:

  • How has this situation come about and how have I contributed?
  • What is stopping us from moving forward and am I in the way?
  • What will the right kind of solution look and feel like to others?

Reflection and impact

The previous two steps will help you to solve problems, but on their own they won’t help you to improve. Reflecting upon our leadership impact is vital to helping you meet future challenges, but perhaps most importantly for your own wellbeing.

Ask yourself:

  • What challenges have I met and what have I learned? 
  • What have my team achieved and learned?
  • Am we empowering each other and are we ready for the next challenge?

There are other ways to succeed in school leadership that involve none of this inner work, but none are as sustainable, compassionate or inclusive as turning up as your genuine and best self. We do a disservice to all new leaders when we ask them to step into the role without understanding that.

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