A couple of weeks ago, as the lockdown started, I experienced the worst week of my career. This week topped it as we prepare to (perhaps too early) come out of it and fend off insults and attacks from the media, government and celebrities whose fame has been built on vilification.
I love using metaphor and symbol to navigate times of difficulty. Often, by holding up problems in one domain against another, learning can be discovered, re-remembered – it delivers a fresh way of seeing through the issues. Commenting to my husband that I had never had so much useless, conflicting information and guidance, he reminded me of when he taught me to surf when we first met. It helped me gain a fresh perspective of what I was trying to process.
Surfing looks effortless and calm. Easy. It’s not. Well – it wasn’t for me, like. (I know, we do crazy things for love). In my early panic-filled times in the line-up, I hear his echo, “Don’t paddle for every wave in a blind panic, Shell – get to know the right ones.” Hmmm – just like all the guidance I thought.
What other advice from surfing could I re-energise my leadership wisdom with? Here is some advice I’m giving myself…
Get to know the waves, then select carefully.
The barrage of information has been wordy, waffling and from all directions. Daily press conferences, the local authority, the diocese, the Department of Education, Twitter tweets, the multi-academy trust I belong to, documentaries… I am learning to select and read carefully. Don’t try to keep on top of every one. Waves come in sets, with lulls in between and you usually only get the chance of one ride, before paddling back out to catch another set. The first two or three waves in a set are generally bigger, followed by up to six or seven smaller ones. Avoid a total wipeout and tiring yourself out unnecessarily. Let the big, meaty ones flow beneath you – paddle for the friendlier, less angsty ones. Let others process, assimilate and bullet point for you and act when you feel it’s time.
Mother Ocean is unpredictable. But every surfer knows that eventually, she will deliver the goods. So will people. So will the universe. Wait with patience and when you’re ready, go for it. Like learning or honing any skill, the effort of the process is as good as the reward it brings and you need patience whilst it all unfolds. Breathe and keep swimming.
Know your local spot…
Surfers know their spot. They know the rips, rocks and where the sands shift within them. Likewise, know your community: staff, parents and children. When you know your turf, you can surf (serve) better.
Also, let others use your space in order to learn. Be open and share what you know.
…but also travel
Any ‘surfer’ who gives in to localism is not a surfer in my book. Surfing is about exploring and travel. A good surfer knows their own break but great leaders learn from the terrain of others, too. Build relationships.
Keep an eye on the weather
Check the weather forecast. Plan for low and high pressure conditions. Keep one eye on the horizon and prepare accordingly.
Use flat days to build your strength.
When it’s quiet, anticipate what could come next. Use the time to recover and build. Self-care, or self develop; it will not go to waste.
Stay fit and flexible.
When you are, your sessions are so much more enjoyable. Put down that lockdown wine and tortilla bowl. It will do you no good. Except in very small doses. Just one. With the Sunday roast, maybe.
Take good care of your kit.
Wetsuit. Board. Keep it rinsed of salt and well waxed. I’m not just talking body parts.
Choose the right board to match conditions. Not every condition requires a thruster. But you also don’t need a whole quiver of boards (despite what my husband says). Stop responding to free offers of CPD/sign-ups. Like the endless boards in the garage, they clutter up space. Choose a couple that do the job well and stop being distracted by shiny things.
Take good care of your environment.
Decent surfers are always eco-warriors. They look after mother earth. We all should – and this also includes your school environment. Have you checked the water supply? How is the physical space? Schools can become a mess in a blink and I’m convinced this affects the psychological feel. Keep it calm, clean and orderly.
Accept that sometimes you will have a rubbish session.
Sometimes, through no fault of your own, your surf is frustrating. So is leadership. Ride it out. There are peaks and troughs in everything.
Don’t drop in on others. Be polite in the line-up.
Sometimes in their eagerness for a wave, a surfer forgets him/herself. Forgive them and yourself if this is ever you. We all make mistakes and in times of stress, they become more likely. Also, look out for others who might be in difficulty. Check-in with your colleagues – make sure they’re not caught up in a rip.
Often a wave’s roar is worse than it’s break.
Sometimes the noise is scary. If necessary, wear a hood to block it out. The world is so much less threatening when it’s quiet. Choose what you give your attention to. And who you listen to. Gavin Williamson, Katie Hopkins…*click* (that’s the sound of off on the remote control).
Sometimes, it’s an effort paddling out.
But always worth it. Every time you work hard to duck, dive and navigate the bombardment – think of what is waiting for you on the other side of the crazy white water. Mother Blue, I can hear my husband say. Calm. Peace. Where you can sit on your board and enjoy the sense of achievement and fulfilment.
Trust in your own ability.
Trust what you know about your limits and the ocean that you’re floating on. Listen to your own truth, and choose where you get advice from carefully. No surfer consults the postman on what the waves are like unless the postie is an avid surfer. (Ours happens to be). Trust in what you know and don’t listen to people who know little about what it’s like or what you do on a daily basis. Katie Hopkins.
Share the joy.
There is nothing like the whoop of a fellow surfer getting their best wave. Enjoy it with them. It is like being at one with the world. Applaud your peers. Live life to the full.
Lead like a surfer.
My heart goes out to every fellow leader who is trying to surf in unpredictable conditions. A surfer can always get the hell out of the water – unfortunately, school leaders have no option but to follow government directives. No-one could tell a surfer how to surf their own spot; when to go in and when to go out. Especially if they had no idea or experience of surfing. They wouldn’t listen.
Why should we?