Simon Sinek has been in the news again recently, talking about why ‘Millennials’ are the way they are in the workplace, and the changes to corporate culture that are needed if employers are to retain their services – a need more pressing if one considers that 75% of the workforce in 20205 will be said ‘Millennials’, according to Sinek. Not surprisingly, his injunction to focus on what inspires them is a natural progression from his slightly older work on ‘Start with Why’, or the ‘Golden Circle’.
It’s that which has me thinking about school leadership for this post. Here’s the TEDx Puget Sound talk from 2009 as a reminder, or another take on the idea by poster/blogger ‘FightMediocrity’ in the form of an animated presentation. In particular, I’m thinking about how schools explain to their staff, to parents and to pupils what differentiates their school, or at least what best describes it.
Let’s start with the school’s most public and accessible statement about itself – the website. On, or easily accessible from, the landing page of most is a page that states ‘Vision’, or perhaps ‘Values’; sometimes teamed with ‘Mission Statement’ as well. I’m not going to critique individual schools here, but suggest that a number of those you will find have a bias towards the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ without explicit statement of the ‘why’.
Does this matter? I suspect it does, to varying degrees, depending on whether the school community has a grasp developed otherwise about their purpose. That’s easily checked, of course, by listening to the answers of a sample of community members to the question, ‘Why is your school important to your community?’, or variations on that theme.
However, I am suggesting that a succinct statement of ‘why’ on a school’s website – written without educational jargon, and perhaps by pupils – is a powerful way to engage those you want to inspire to support it, one way or another.
In May 2016 I attended the INTASE World Educational Leadership Summit in Singapore, which included a Leadership Masterclass led by Dr Douglas Reeves, founder of the Creative Leadership Solutions consultancy group. Part of the day involved considering our own Vision/ Mission Statements, reflecting on how clearly they spoke to our communities about our purpose. Dr Reeves presented the following as examples for further discussion:
- Learn with passion, act with courage, change the world
- Everyone learns every day
- Success for every student
- Empower students, strengthen community
Depending on individual interpretation, delegates agreed more or less that those parts in italics (added by me) represented clearly the ‘why’ of schooling, whereas the others were perhaps were more about ‘how’. That said, they could represent the ‘why’ of a school but less clearly so.
No-one argued that the ‘how’ and even the ‘what’ weren’t important (and these circles are on the diagram for a reason), but that the presence of a succinct ‘why’ grabbed at the gut, to paraphrase Sinek, in a way that a lot of our own statements did not.
This idea of ‘grabbing the gut’ is, Sinek argues, a biological response that is part of inspiring others to engage. the following diagram sums it up: when we talk about purpose we engage the limbic / most primitive part of the brain:
In essence, when we focus on ‘why’, we are building affiliation with our tribe: we are saying ‘we belong together’. Once that’s established – through a well-crafted, jargon-free, gut-grabbing statement – the ‘how’ and ‘what’ should follow as obvious consequences of the pursuit of that purpose.
As a leadership strategy, this seems a sound basis. It’s my belief, though, that while sound, it’s not sufficiently comprehensive enough as a school leadership strategy. Why not add ‘who’ and ‘when’ to the circles – either as discrete circles, or as part of the ‘what’ circle’ – to make our appeal to engage that bit stronger. Further, because the work of our profession is about personal development (in all forms – academic, pastoral, spiritual, etc.), I think we must be able to make clear who is responsible for what we do, and to explain the chronology of what we do.
As school leaders, I believe it is important that we can say to the members of our community not just ‘we share this purpose’ and ‘we do these things in these ways’, but that we add: ‘this is your role in pursuing our purpose, and this is when your contribution is most important’.