Daring to lead: Recognising the power of vulnerability

Rereading Brené Brown’s book – Dare to lead – has reminded Sue Williamson, Chief Executive at SSAT, of the importance of empathising, connecting and being courageous, while reaffirming that change is needed now in our education system

Throughout the pandemic, I have admired the work of school leaders, teachers and school staff. I am the Chair of Trustees at CAM MAT in Cambridgeshire – there are 11 schools: 4 secondary and 7 primary. I have seen the amount of work involved in reducing risk, delivering face-to-face and online lessons, providing pastoral support and generally doing what is right for the young people in our care. This has confirmed to me that people who work in schools are true leaders. It also led me to reread Brené Brown’s book – Dare to lead.

Lead Practitioner – Recognising the skills, experience and quality of school staff at every level

For Brené, leadership is not about titles, status and wielding power. A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for recognising the potential in people and ideas and has the courage to develop that potential. The book is beautifully written based on years of research in many different settings, and it makes you focus on the real challenges of leadership. She points out that leaders do not have to pretend that they have the right answers. Instead, they distribute power, face up to difficult conversations and situations, and are prepared to share our vulnerability. It is essential to share our humanity – to empathise, connect with others, and be courageous. Brené talks about gritty faith and gritty facts.

She uses Jim Collins’ example from his book Good to Great of the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Jim Stockdale spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was tortured more than twenty times during his imprisonment. He fought to stay alive and helped other prisoners to survive the physical and emotional torment. Stockdale told Collins that it was the optimists that didn’t make it out, saying: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Politicians are talking about “Build Back Better” and, at SSAT, we are saying that change is needed now in our education system. We are planning a series of conferences that look at the need for change for learners, teachers and leaders, and assessment. Personally, I believe we need radical change and have been advocating for this in our pamphlet series on Redesigning Schooling and Deep Social Justice. Brené talks of revolution, and the courage needed. In her book, she lists three things she has learnt from her research:

  1. The level of collective courage in an organisation is the absolute best predictor of that organisation’s ability to be successful in terms of its culture, to develop leaders, and to meet its mission.
  2. The greatest challenge in developing brave leaders is helping them acknowledge and answer their personal call to courage. Courage can be learned if we’re willing to put down our armour and pick up the shared language, tools, and skills we need for rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust and learning to rise.
  3. We fail the minute we let someone else define success for us.

I love the concept of “rumbling with vulnerability” and suggest that you watch Brené’s TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability. I recommend that you read the book and explore the Dare to Lead hub – it is full of useful tools for leaders to use. I believe that by doing so, you will be inspired and motivated, as well as determined to speak up for what is needed to ensure that every young person can lead fulfilled lives.

It is time to reimagine the school-led system.

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Lead Practitioner – Recognising the skills, experience and quality of school staff at every level

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