Taking time to take stock

seeing the wood from the trees (source: pixabay.com)

It is the last day of term. The last day of first semester in Australia. And for me the last day of the first semester of full-time work in seven years, since the birth of my first child.

I spent much of the day pondering a couple of coaching style questions:

  1. As you reflect on the last six months in your role at work, what are some celebrations?; and
  2. Fast forward to the end of the year. What are the things you ideally see as having been achieved, and of what might you need to be mindful in order to get there?

Today I posed these to a couple of people with whom I work closely, and also to myself. These questions are a deliberate tool for looking back and looking forward. They use the aspects of mediative questions recommended by Cognitive Coaching:

  • Plural forms (What are some celebrations …?);
  • Positive presuppositions – the assumption that the person has been successful and has the capacity to reflect on their success (As you reflect …);
  • Tentative language (Of what might you need to be mindful …?); and
  • Open-ended (What are the …?, rather than, Have you …?).

Asking these questions on the last day of first semester was a mechanism for pausing to take stock. Schools move at a cracking pace, and those working in schools are often racing to keep up. Stopping to look back over our shoulder at how far we have come, and in what direction, can help us to realise what we have (or perhaps haven’t) achieved. It can help to anchor us in reality, to consider possibilities, and to re-orient us as we move into the future. I remember doing this from time to time during my PhD: looking back, wondering how I’d come so far, and remembering that it was just by taking one little step at a time.

My own reflections were around a shift in perceptions of my role between the beginning of the year and now. Mine is a new role to the school—Dean of Research and Pedagogy—and in January it felt a bit nebulous. A fuzzy outline of a role. A job description yet to come to life.

I initially spent a lot of time teasing out the crux of what this role was about; its strategy, its deliverables, and how I might gauge my progress in fulfilling its mandate. Looking back at my initial strategic and operational planning is gratifying; most of it has come to life, becoming breath in my work and in the life of the school, on which I can now build.

One of the indicators of how my role has evolved in this short time is the increasing list of those from across the school—from the classroom to the boardroom—who are approaching me for support in their area. I’m especially pleased at some of the unexpected impacts of my work.

Reflecting takes time, but it’s time worth carving out. I was recently reminded that my one word for 2017 was meant to be ‘nourish’. I have lost track of that along the way this year, but am hoping to regain some capacity for nourishment in this coming week when I’m with my family on a South-East Asian island for some time together and some time out.

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Reflecting on the school leader

The bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise; the great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves”. ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Part of my PhD literature review encompassed what makes effective school leadership, and effective leadership of change or reform in schools. If you don’t fancy savouring all 300 odd pages of my dissertation, the summary of my literature search determined that effective school leaders:

  • Develop shared vision;
  • Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
  • Develop an environment of trust;
  • Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
  • Solve complex problems;
  • Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
  • Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

Many of these points are reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, which break school leadership down into the following components:

  • Leading teaching and learning;
  • Developing self and others;
  • Leading improvement, innovation, and change;
  • Leading the management of the school; and
  • Engaging and working with the community.

Both of these lists cross over one another, and each seems simple in its short-list nature (5 dot points! How hard can it be?), but looking closely at many of these aspects of school leadership quickly reveals the complexity of the mandate. On top of that, school leadership teams are under pressure from constant measures of their performance. Leadership itself becomes a quantified, evaluated performance. Meanwhile, on a daily basis leaders constantly code-switch as they move from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the parents’ committee, to the community event, to the performance management conversation, to the staff member or student who needs support.

My PhD study found that school leaders are constantly navigating internal, relational, and organisational identities. These complex and sometimes competing identities affect leaders’ experiences and decision making. The leaders in my study were moving, often deliberately and relentlessly, between leadership modes that were directive and empowering, hero and servant, visible and invisible.

Leading is a constant state of becoming and of identity work. Peter Gronn, in his 2003 book The new work of educational leaders: Changing leadership practice in an era of school reform, reminds us that leaders’ senses of who they are, and who they aspire to be, play a pivotal role in their engagement with their work. Having multiple leadership roles in my current school has meant that it is not only me who has had to shift my self-perceptions or identity enactments, but also my colleagues who have had to see me in new ways across my time at the school. Additionally, I have multiple, competing identities that exist simultaneously with my school identity; as parent, spouse, sibling, daughter, researcher. Boundary spanner and pracademic. Identities like plates precariously spinning atop spidery poles.

While Gronn suggests that individuals rework their perspectives in relation to their contexts, my PhD found that, while context does shape professional identity, individuals also choose their contexts to fit their own identities. My leader participants indicated that they stayed in schools that resonated with their senses of professional self, and left schools in which they did not feel aligned with organisational purpose and action. That is, school contexts shape leaders, and leaders shape their contexts. Leaders can and do choose schools with which they feel an identity fit, and leave schools in which they feel they do not fit.

Wellbeing is a real issue in school leadership, as reflected in the results of the longitudinal Riley study, which has found that Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Leaders need formal and informal support, as well as their own strategies for self-care and renewal. It might be that school leadership can be summarised in a series of dot points, but it is contextual, complex, and lonely. It is challenging and rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating.

School leadership and resisting performativity

Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. (Ball, 2003, p.216)

We live in an education world that is highly-metricised and focused on hyper-accountability. Students, teachers and school leaders exist in a world in which data and high-stakes testing rule with a policy-clad fist. Countries, schools and students are pitted against each other. The media creates polarising narratives – public vs. private schooling, parents vs. teachers, home vs. school, this country vs. Finland or China. Governments create policies like competitive performance pay for teachers and additional testing.

Sahlberg (2011) frames the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as a viral force of accountability, performativity, and commodification. Ball (2003) notes the panopticism of managing schools; all are watched and simultaneously scrambling to be visible in the ‘right’ ways. Zhao (2016) acknowledges the strong desire for measuring students, teachers, and schools, but argues for treating numbers with suspicion and expanding what is measured in education. Biesta (2015) notes that the view of education as encompassing only academic achievement in a small and selective number of domains and subject areas, is a limited one. He warns:

The problem with excellence is that it very quickly leads to a competitive mind-set, where some schools or some education systems are supposed to be more excellent than others. In my view, the duty of education is to ensure that there is good education for everyone everywhere.

This notion of democratisation rather than contestation or commodification is radical in our current edu-climate. Ball identifies institutional self-interest, pragmatics and performative worth as the new ethical systems of education. Heffernan (2016) points out that principals’ behaviour has changed as the focus of schools has shifted towards one led by performative numbers and specific sets of data; principals work to improve data. She cautions against “focusing on improving these specific data sets to the detriment of other, holistic, pursuits in education that are not so easily quantified and measured” (p.389). Keddie et al. (2011) express concern that the narrowing of priorities due to performative schooling cultures has pushed to the margins schools’ focus on social justice and equity. Ball suggests that ‘values schizophrenia’ is experienced by educators whereby they sacrifice their commitment, judgement and authenticity for impression and performance.

Leading in schools is complex at the best and easiest of times. Plenty of scholars have identified the qualities of effective school leaders. One example is Gurr and Day (2014), who in their reflections on 15 stories of successful school principals across 13 countries, identify successful principals as: having high expectations; being both heroic and empowering in their leadership; developing collective, shared vision; taking on the symbolic role of storyteller and sense-maker; embodying integrity, trust, and transparency; being people centred; and balancing instructional and transformational leadership. Navigating these multiple and complex roles is challenging even when everything is going well and there is plenty to celebrate. When things get tough and demanding, leaders are really tested.

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Sometimes, leaders have to make difficult but unpopular decisions for the greater good of the organisation, for the many, or for the principles of education. Leaders’ decisions can be objected to by those without the big picture context or an understanding of a situation’s complexities. Leaders can listen to others’ feedback and take it on board in decision-making, and they can be as transparent as possible in their communication. (Academic writing, especially the blind peer review process, has helped to shape my acceptance of and willingness to learn from dissenting voices, brutal criticism and those who disagree with me. I’ve applied this in my school context by finding ways to ask for honest, sometimes anonymous, feedback from others in order to inform my practice and the education reform initiatives in which I have been involved.)

Can we adopt Biesta’s call to pursue ‘good education for everyone everywhere’ while also pursuing excellence? Can leaders of schools help to create counter- or simultaneous narratives to those of high-stakes accountability around narrow foci?  I think leaders can buck against the push for compliance, performance and the enterprise mindset. We can choose resistance to performative pressures, although not without a price.

*           *           *

Post-script: Interested in democratising education? This Re-Imagining Education for Democracy Summit, in Queensland in November, could be a great place for presentation and discussion of ideas. It’s being spearheaded by Stewart Riddle, who wrote this 2014 Conversation piece Education is a public good, not a private commodity.

References

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. Eurpoean Journal of Education Research, Development and Policy, 50(1), pp 75-87.

Gurr, D., & Day, C. (2014). Thinking about leading schools. In C. Day & D.Gurr (Eds.), Leading schools successfully: Stories from the field (pp. 194-208). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Heffernan, A. (2016). The emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.

Keddie, A., Mills, M., & Pendergast, D. (2011). Fabricating an identity in neo-liberal times: Performaing schooling as ‘number one’. Oxford Review of Education 37(1), pp. 75-92.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York, NY. Teachers College.

Zhao, Y.  (2016). Numbers can lie: The meaning and limitations of test scores. In Y. Zhao (Ed.), Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes (pp. 13-29). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (reddit.com)

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source – reddit.com)

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?

Schools can lead and generate research #AHISA16

Rottnest rainbow, by Deborah Netolicky

This week I’m attending the AHISA (Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia) conference, which brings school leaders from around Australia together for a few days of visiting schools, conferencing, and networking. In my daily life, conversing with educators, many of whom I’ve never met, in other spaces and places tends to happen through social media (Twitter, blogging, Voxer). This week, however, via the AHISA conference, I’ve had the pleasure of catching up with those I have met and know well: my first principal and a variety of leaders with whom I have worked in Perth, Melbourne, and London. As someone who has worked in independent schools in Australia and the UK (for over 16 years, except for 6 months at a London comprehensive) this conference visit has been in some ways like watching my career flash before my eyes, as I’ve reconnected with various colleagues I’ve worked with at various times and places across the last decade and a half. It’s a reunion and a catch up with those I’ve worked over the years, a chance to talk with current colleagues about how the conference relates to our current work, and a place to make new connections with school leaders from around the nation.

In the conference sessions, I’ve been following a thread that is important for my own current work: professional learning for teachers and leaders, especially that emerging deliberately out of specific contexts. These sessions are relevant to me and my school because I have led a whole-school, evidence-based strategic intervention: a coaching-for-professional-growth model. This role has involved, since 2012, canvassing research literatures, writing papers, presenting to the school Board each year, and leading teams of teachers to prototype and iterate a context-specific model to support teacher and leader growth. This intervention was top-down (driven by the school’s strategic vision) as well as middle-out and bottom-up (developed by teams of teachers, led by me and overseen by the school Executive). It has meant generating data around the impacts of our work and tracing the influence of the model on teaching, learning, leading, school culture and the organisational language of professional conversation.

At the AHISA conference, the best workshop presentations for me have been those that have outlined how a school or system has applied systematic, research-informed, evidence-generating methodologies, with a clear aim.

Dr Gary Jones (2016) points out that schools can use evidence to make better decisions. He elevates the following from Barends, Rousseau and Briner (2014) as a frame for evidence-informed decision making in education:

  • Asking: translating a practical issue or problem into an answerable question;
  • Acquiring: systematically searching for and retrieving the evidence;
  • Appraising: critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence;
  • Aggregating: weighing and pulling together the evidence;
  • Applying: incorporating the evidence into the decision making process; and
  • Assessing: evaluating the outcome of the decision taken.

Evidence might include: published academic research that quantitatively or qualitatively analyses empirical data; data, facts, and figures gathered from the school; specialised professional experience and judgements of relevant practitioners; and values, views, and concerns of relevant stakeholders. Schools can value and consider a range of research, as well as tacit knowledge and the richness of their own context.

As Dylan Wiliam points out in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning (and elsewhere), research cannot tell teachers and schools what to do, but can inform their decision making and their efforts. We can look to research for likely-to-be-productive avenues in education, rather than for recipes or silver bullet solutions to be unquestioningly followed.

In fact, schools can lead research, not just follow it. They can generate research, not only consume it. School leaders and teachers can be researchers, can apply research thinking, and can be critical questioners of research literature. They can challenge each other, participate in respectful debate, investigate contradictory positions, or consider multiple possibilities. They can pilot, prototype, and iterate new ways of doing things, while collecting data on the progress and impacts of interventions.

It has been great this week to connect with past, current, and future colleagues at the AHISA Leading, Learning, and Caring conference. It has been even more pleasing to see the work of some educators and schools in applying evidence-informed and data-generating design thinking to their complex work. Still, there are those who could more rigorously interrogate their assumptions, practices, and uses of research literature. There are those from whom others would benefit if they contributed their thoughts to edu-dialogues. Many of us would benefit from listening more closely to others. Whether affirming, querying, or dissenting, it is a range of thoughtful voices from multiple perspectives that together can shift the narrative, practice, and evidenced understanding of education.

Questioning heroic leadership: The visible-invisible hero

heroes

Our notions of heroism change over time. The construction and reception of heroes is dependent on context. Often the heroes of a time and place are only decided in hindsight when their actions and the consequences of those actions are weighed by the collective, the media or Hollywood scriptwriters.

Texts can reflect the values, anxieties and aspirations of their time and place. For example, the Star Wars franchise has changed its notions of the hero over time. Early Star Wars films had some diversity back in the 1970s. Leia was an independent hero who could stand up for herself and played a key part in the Rebel Alliance. But she was still pictured as the pretty woman handing medals to the male heroes. Lando Calrissian was a non-white heroic figure, but a more minor and less honourable character than the two white males, Luke and Han. Diversity and Otherness were also foregrounded by the multiple alien species in the films, from everyone’s favourite heroic Wookie, to sinister or repulsive villains.

Fast forward almost forty years and Rei and Finn, the heroes of the 2015 Star Wars Episode VII (which I have written about here and here), show the shift in the hero’s representation in terms of gender and race.

Meanwhile, Batman is a hero whose representation has evolved over time, from the silly unintimidating comical figure of the 1960s television show, to the tortured, vengeful, imposing figures of recent films. Newer Batmans, including those played by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, are psychologically darker and more complex.

In 2016, heroes like Deadpool and the new Ghostbusters question the traditional portrayal of the hero. Deadpool, like the animated hero Shrek, challenges stereotypical hero behaviour. He is rude, lewd and without a noble cause. The new Ghostbusters expand our vision of how heroes might look. The Game of Thrones franchise, too, agitates reader and viewer expectations of the hero by presenting us with complex, shifting characters who dance along and frequently cross the line between heroism and villainy.

To leadership …

How is the realm of leadership affected by the fluid definitions of heroism, dependent as they are on the time and place in which any real, mythological or fictional hero is created and received?

Today I’ll be speaking at the Rise and Future of Heroism Science Conference in order to explore what insights the data from my PhD has to offer the field of heroism, and what heroism has to offer the arena of leadership.

The questions I ask are:

  • Must the school leader hero be a charismatic, selfless visionary? A beacon of bravery and a moral crusader?
  • Are alternate leadership metaphors and narratives helpful for thinking about contemporary leadership in schools?

My answer, based in the emergent themes from the interview data of school leaders in my PhD study, is that the traditional lone hero on an individualistic quest is not an appropriate metaphor for the school leader. The leaders in my study reflected notions of servant, distributed, caregiver or transparent leadership.

Participants offered up their own metaphors for heroic leadership, revealing that heroism when leading others can be fluid, deliberate and imperceptible.

by Deborah Netolicky

In my PhD thesis, I applied the literary character of the Cheshire Cat to emblematically articulate the visible-invisible school leader, who deliberately appears and disappears, showing only part of themselves depending on the needs of those who they lead. The Cheshire Cat leader empowers others to find their way through their professional Wonderlands. Sometimes they are the encouraging grin, the glimmering eyes, the disappearing tail. At times they are the disembodied voice, mentoring, coaching or guiding. Unlike the autocratic and unlikeable Red Queen, the Cat is a mysterious guide who operates from the aerial view of the tree, with an understanding of the bigger picture.

The image of leaders posturing as white knights of school improvement, wielding swords of change and self-promotion, is seductive but unhelpful. Heroism in school leadership can be deliberate, fluid and at times imperceptible. School leaders can focus on the collective good and intentionally navigate visibility and invisibility (although I wonder to what extent deliberately imperceptible leadership can feel like being an under-appreciated Santa Claus, and how leaders feel when their machinations to build the capacities of others go unnoticed).

My PhD suggests that leadership that serves a community or organisation, and the individuals within it, need not be highly visible. Heroism in leadership can be about deliberate invisibility, the barely discernible swish of a tail and the disappearing gleam of a Cheshire grin.

Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?