Dr Roger Bretherton, a leadership psychologist at the University of Lincoln, addressed that challenge for leaders with a fascinating insight into the importance of cultivating headspace in challenging times:
The question I’ve been obsessed with for the past decade is how do we as leaders, lead in a situation where you feel that the context is against you all the time?
A culture of austerity, lack or resources and feeling undervalued…these pressures can make you lead by default but it may not be the way you want to lead.
He said that researchers had identified six key characteristics, each with their own strengths, of what the good life looked like in almost every culture across the world:
- Knowledge - creativity, open-mindedness, love of learning
- Courage - bravery, persistence, integrity
- Humanity - kindness, discretion
- Justice - fairness, leadership
- Temperance - humility, self-control
- Transcendence - wonder, gratitude, humour and faith
Roger said that when these positive characteristics are applied to the leadership of organisations such as schools and colleges the effects were startling: staff turnover, emotional exhaustion, work absences hospital visits and substance abuse goes down, while job satisfaction, motivation, social club involvement, volunteering, collaboration and innovation goes up. Importantly, decision making improves.
He suggested two practical strategies that leaders could take away and use back at their schools or colleges:
Strengths priming“When preparing to have a difficult conversation with a colleague, take five minutes before the meeting to think about the strengths of that person,” he said.“We are aware of what we do not like about them, but think about their strengths. They may be difficult but they are also incredibly loyal, for example. Strengths priming puts you in a much more resourceful state. You come across as more engaged and the other person feels that they are being heard. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you get the outcome you want but it puts you in the best position to have a good conversation with someone.”
FeedbackRoger highlighted the research of Australian organisational psychologist Sara Lewis, who characterises feedback according to the suits in a deck of playing cards:Clubs
- Negative feedback that's low in detail.
- Great for stopping behaviour but it does no more than that.
- Leads people to be discouraged but it does have a function if something bad is happening.
- Negative content but high in detail.
- These aren’t fun conversations but you often have to have them to get down to things, e.g. a health and safety incident that you need to get to the bottom of and then determine what action to take next.
- Doesn’t help us envisage what a better future would look like.
- Good for identifying problems and where they have come from.
- Positive in content and low in detail.
- Makes people feel they belong, like a quick compliment, for example.
- Increases positive emotions but can be quite superficial.
- Positive in content and high in detail.
- Is often missing in organisations - how do we start to identify what people are doing well and talk about that?
- You know they have done a good job but they can’t see that - how do you begin to talk about that?
- Make a space to say: this is what you are good at, and why.
- Research shows that these are the conversations that make people feel appreciated.
What does it mean to be a leader?
Roger said that psychological research was helping to form a new understanding of what it means to be a leader: “People used to talk about leaders being influencers, but the research now says that the people who truly lead are the energisers - they make us feel we have something to offer.
"I hope this helps you to think about where you can begin to put positive energy into the system, and where that might lead your organisation if you do.”
Reporting by Nick Bannister, education communications consultant.