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Brave leadership follows sharing your vulnerabilities

Posted: 05/05/20

Author: Hildi Mitchell, Headteacher, Downs Infant School, Brighton

Brave leadership follows sharing your vulnerabilities

When the Covid 19 crisis hit our school, the letter I wrote to my children trying to explain what was happening hit the headlines.  I was praised in the mums-net world for talking about love within my school community, for focusing on the positives, and for encouraging my children to be brave.  Where did this bravery come from? How had I created an inclusive school community built on trusting our values of embracing diversity, empathy and flexibility where there had previously been distrust and division?

Three years ago, I was interviewed for my first permanent headship, as leader of a larger than average infant school in central Brighton. During the interview process it was clear that the school was riven with discord and distrust. While I wanted the job, I doubted several times during the two-day interview that I had the skills to unite this school and several times nearly withdrew. In the end, I put my trust in the governors. I promised to be honest, to seek consensus, to build on common ground and to develop empathy. They gave me the job.

Since then I’ve had the privilege of being coached by someone who understood the journey we were on.  She recently encouraged me to reflect on what I’d accomplished.  It was clear that things were changing.  I couldn’t put my finger on what the key driver was.  Yes, I had done what I’d promised in my interview.  I had put empathy and kindness at the heart of the school.  I had involved everyone in problem-solving.  But as she pushed me to name the magic ingredient, I was at a loss.  ‘I am just being myself.’ I told her. ‘I’m nothing special.  They see me make mistakes; I say sorry all the time.  I don’t get it all right.’  And then she named it for me.  ‘Hildi, what you demonstrate is the power of vulnerability’. I’ve since found out this is a ‘thing’. 

While bravery is the quality of showing strength in the face of danger, fear or difficulty; vulnerability is the state of being capable of being hurt. Therefore, you could say that if you’re not being vulnerable, you cannot be brave. Having shown vulnerability over the past three years, my staff, children and parents trusted me when I showed bravery at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.  They know I won’t ask anything of them that I won’t do, and they know that, while I am their leader, I am also human.  I can be hurt. Closing my beloved school for the lockdown and opening a new adapted version to cope with the crisis was venturing into the unknown; it hurt a lot.   

Due to social isolation measures, the early stages of lockdown planning were accomplished while living in my Summer house in the garden (henceforth known by my school as the ‘Head’s Shed’).  It was freezing and lonely, and there wasn’t any wifi. Every night I returned to a cold dinner and another night of using up my phone data trying to make sense of the latest guidance for schools.  Every morning I went back into school to try and help everyone else make sense of what it meant for them.

Over the past 5 weeks I’ve talked to a lot of heads. Some have found this transition into a new role, leading a community in crisis rather than raising attainment or being ‘OFSTED ready’, easier than others. Many are clearly struggling with a loss of their own identity being tied up with their school role.  I and my school are fortunate that we can speak together about these things.  I have led the way by sometimes not knowing, by changing my mind when I’ve got it wrong, and by letting myself be seen as I am.  It means it’s been ok for staff to voice their feelings, for parents to tell me they are overwhelmed, and for children to cry. 

And yes, in spite of social distancing, when children’s tears have fallen, I have provided hugs, regardless of the risk.  Because we are being courageous, and that is what I wish for, more than anything, for my school community.  As I said in my letter, 'We are on an adventure, and like all adventurers, we have to be brave'. 

Picture shows Dr Mitchell being a brave headteacher (complete with cape) by pupil George

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