Act Decisively : Embrace Doubt

Hamlet-16x9There may be a number of new Subject Leaders getting ready for their promoted role in the next week or two. Always exciting, but also a bit daunting too, going into a leadership position where your decisions will affect not just you and your classes but other staff and students too. There again, that’s why you applied for it – to have more influence and impact.

There is a tendency to feel you need to make that impact straight away – to mark your position and assert your presence; a declaration of arrival. But there is also the doubt that inevitably arrives with new terrain as to whether we’re selecting the best option, the right approach or the most effective campaign. The first few weeks and months of a new role can feel like the two forces of conviction and doubt are engaged in a wrestling match, attempting at once to persuade you of the need to be seen to act, whilst stalling and holding out for certainty. It’s the Hamlet moment.

When I started as a 29 year old head of department I made some howlers. Many were from lack of experience, some from lack of good judgement but the first lot from leaping in too quickly in an attempt to override the doubt and be seen as decisive.  I used to think ‘Doubt’ and ‘Conviction’ were two opposing options;  they’re not, they are two sides of the same coin; they’re complementary. In fact I’d go as far as to say one is a requirement of the other if a great deal of our conviction is not to ossify and become belligerence. The secret, I think, is realising that doubt should be a positive quality that is essential to enquiry, rather than a lack of self-belief. It becomes a case of formalising doubt into the procedure in order to have conviction about the process. If you are taking up a new role this term, or inhabit a place in which you are conscious that you will be watched to see how you make your early decisions in post and you have the ‘Hamlet’ moment of when to act and how, here are a few suggestions:

What is the imperative?

Identify what needs changing most, and what needs changing first. There is an important distinction but I’ve seen people confuse the two and rush to implement a change when they would have been better deliberating. Ask yourself ‘Is it a crisis?’ If you don’t act now what’s the worst that can happen? Obviously if health and safety are involved – you need to be decisive and rapidly  so, but there are few areas when taking time to consider, gather evidence, seek counsel and weigh up options won’t all help you decide on the best course of action.

Being selective

Part of managing a team is introducing changes, but another equally important aspect is maintaining and sustaining the good practice. You won’t necessarily know which is which straight away and there’s always the chance that changing one thing will disrupt the currents and undermine the good stuff. Learn the connections, the links in the chains and be conscious of the knock-on effects. It’s about being wary of unplugging the cable to check the phone when people around the house are in the middle of vital work on the family’s computers. Many of the best areas of practice of the team will have a multiplicity of beneficial associations so identify these, support them, sustain them and see what you can build upon them before instigating changes that will radically affect them.

Who is it for?

Is your first significant change responding to a situation-need, or a personal authority-need? There is often an imperative to stamp ourselves into the role by being able to claim a victory. There is also an argument of starting as you mean to go on. First impressions do count, but so do first big changes and getting them right. In fact the successful implementation of the decision will help create the impression. But it’s all too easy to frame your first decisive act around making the ‘I’m in charge’ statement. Weigh up the need, marshall the pieces into place that will help ensure it succeeds, and then pursue it with the conviction that you know you are doing this for the situation – not your personal profile. Have a clear image of who the ultimate beneficiary is (always the students) and you will have clarity of purpose. Your credibility will build up as much by how you go about the decision-making process as what you decide. People will forgive occasional mistakes (as you should of yourself – allow yourself a quota of major and minor ‘mistakes’ in your first year) but will be more impressed by your procedure than any number of decisive actions pursued in a ham-fisted way.

How much consultation?

This is where doubt can act as the vital yeast to leaven the dough of a significant decision you’re about to take. It’s worth sharing your intentions for action at 3 levels:

a) Get back-up from above (or below – if they hold to an enlightened flipped pyramid model). If the action or decision is likely to be controversial with your team sound out the colleagues that your team-members will probably launch an appeal to if they’re unhappy with what you’re proposing – line-manager, deputy, head…… Not only will they be able to give you sound advice on what you’re proposing, they will cover your back and be a consistent line of defence. But give them a chance to input on the support you’re asking them for. It will strengthen your own confidence when you launch.

b) Seek advice from others in a similar role to yourself who have a proven track record. Ask for their experiences, the pitfalls and the escape-routes. Particularly the elements they put in place to support the change, satisfy concerns and assist reluctant colleagues through it.

c) Consult with the team. Easy if it’s going to be a popular course of action. Less easy if you know it’s going to be less popular, yet even more essential to confront issues at the early stage rather than later when inevitable difficulties interrupt the smooth unfolding of events. Your team deserve to have their views heard and taken into account, their worries expressed, their concerns addressed and their expertise or experience added to the mix. Carry out your reading, conduct the research, collect the evidence and present your case. Justify the need for change (an often skimped stage in the process but vital to prepare the ground). Lay out the options and invite views. You will probably have a preferred course of action already but embrace the doubt that there might be considerations you haven’t thought of that will help you come to a better conclusion. It’s the final decision that matters – not whether you thought of the right option beforehand. Have your touchstone – your base philosophy of what we’re doing – and use this an an opportunity to express it. Let people know where you’re coming from and what drives your thinking. You may not win everyone over – but by arguing your case you are creating your team’s ethos. One of the many heads I’ve worked for used to have heated arguments with the head of maths in subject leaders’ meetings. He never did persuade her of his point of view, but he sold to the rest of us his vision by the power of his arguments, the passion behind his intention for the school and his belief in the process of open debate. I’m convinced the head of maths served a useful purpose for him; she was the grit around which he made vivid his mission and persuaded the rest of us to cast our lot with him, time and again.

For productive debate there has to be an essential ingredient: for you to have sufficient doubt about the form of the ultimate decision such that your mind can be changed. Why should anyone bother with the effort of discussion if you’ve already made your mind up; if, whatever they say, you’re going to carry on regardless? There is a line between visible uncertainty in meetings that can cause the confidence of team members to leak away, and productive, constructive doubt that means you are open to other ideas and are persuadable. Permit yourself sufficient doubt about the final outcome of the discussion, but conviction in the process of high quality debate to mould the best course of action.

Dealing with grumbles.

No equivocation. Eyes fixed on the prize. Square-jawed certainty and no prisoners taken. There are those who hold that total belief is the only quality that can drive a change through and that any pulling into the lay-by will undermine the project. Full speed down the motorway and we don’t stop till we get there. Well, if you’re fortunate, and you’ve hit on the right plan first time you will draw the doubters to you as the success accumulates. But we never really know whether we’ve got the right plan until we get there. More times than we like, we need to re-set the sat-nav. Things we hadn’t thought of, or just….Events. The answer is to build in regular review points to evaluate, check, adjust. The Apollo astronauts had course-adjustment times built into their daily routines on their way to the moon – it wasn’t as perfect a sling-shot as Newton would have had us believe. There has to be a similar discipline to these in school and they have to be real. I’ve come across enough initiatives that were controversial but passed with “..well it’s only for a trial period, we’ll review it in a year…” And, of course, the review never takes place, it becomes part of the routine and it takes its place as part of the lumpy fabric of the place; never quite comfortable – but not causing so much discomfort that anyone can be bothered to bring it up again. There can be too many dishevelled accoutrements in a school that can eventually restrict all movement.

So – real reviews, evidenced evaluations and a commitment to adjusting and improving. Build them into the timetable of team meetings but also make it part of the informal interactions. Give the critic the opportunity to get it off his chest in a one-to-one sometimes, steady the waverers and thank and encourage the supporters. Work the team – but be prepared to adjust in the light of what you’re seeing on the ground. And be gutsy enough for a radical overhaul if the plan isn’t working. It may mean the plan was flawed; it may equally mean that other events have conspired to affect the scene. Be bold enough to acknowledge changes are needed and be up-front about why. What have you got to lose other than credibility at flogging a dead sheep?

But… and this is the tango between doubt and conviction…. between the periodic reviews, that’s when you as leader need to hold your doubt internally. You need to be seen to believe in what you are engaged upon despite the inevitable self-questioning. I’ve realised it’s a fallacy to deny doubt. We all are subject to it. For some it becomes a confidence-eroding public display, others park it only for it to emerge when they switch off the public face, others build reinforced kraals refuting all contradictory whispers, and yet I suspect the air still moves and the ghosts of doubt still creep in. Usually at night. Especially at night. But that’s how it is. Expect it. Anticipate it. It goes with the role and none of us can control it entirely. But permit its exposure at those timetabled review occasions. Make it work for you. Between-times you do what you are paid extra to do – to make decisions. What we want to reach for is well-informed decisiveness and an assurance that we’ve done the groundwork to see this through because we’ve allowed as many ideas in as we could incorporate realistically.

As a coda, I really like the form John Tomsett’s blog has taken. Yes, I know he’s pinched it from ‘The Observer’ magazine, but in choosing the format ‘This Much I Know’ it acknowledges this continuum of doubt and conviction that we all inhabit, from the swirling milky way of uncertainty and may-be, to the solar system of things we’re pretty sure about, but are open to new evidence and insight, down to a solar core of the things we say are irrefutable – our central beliefs and the furnace that fires our ambition. Amongst all the debris of uncertainty – this is what has coalesced into something approaching solidity. Doubt and Conviction: not opposites but complementary necessities for us to be able to explore sure-footedly. Doubt that opens, not closes the mind to new ideas, that actively seeks new viewpoints and also contrary ones, that provokes dialogue and discussion rather than closing it down. That’s the sort of doubt I can not only live with, but find essential. It inspires a professional conversation and a value in exploring the experiences of others. So, to the question ‘how much doubt can we allow ourselves?’, the answer is decisively – an eloquence of doubt.

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