A previous headteacher once said to me about leading on change that,
“A plane crashed in the jungle and luckily all the passengers survived. They made a decision to make their way through the dense trees to find help. They organised themselves well, and at the end of each day the group were very pleased with the progress they were making, except for one. He felt that there was little evidence to support the groups’ enthusiasm but kept quiet worried that he would be seen as antagonistic and ultimately be ostracized. However, he no longer could join the nightly praise ritual and in the morning he climbed the nearest tree. When he reached the top his suspicion was correct, he climbed down and said we have been working really hard and well together but we are going the wrong way.”
This struck me because there have been times early in my career when I have hesitated to challenge an established view. This may be in part because of my culture where certain institutional traditions and experiences are not questioned. For example, it can be difficult to challenge (or challenge effectively) a headteacher with decades of experience in education or a coach of your sports team. This is not saying they would not be open to challenge but that there is a reverence of respect that stops short of open warfare.
In other cases, it may be similar to the group member in the story. His fear to challenge the team led to multiple days wasted that took them further from finding safety but it can be difficult to rise above the parapet. It is only natural to not want to disrupt the team, however, the issue with that is the creation of “artificial harmony” which can paralyse a leadership team. To avoid artificial harmony, Paul Lencioni (2012) suggests that teams should establish clarity within which includes an acceptance of tension. This comes with teams building a foundation of trust and a clear understanding that it is nothing personal. Teams will argue but an old basketball saying is that you “leave it on the court”. Healthy teams seek out disagreement and when its over the team leaves the boardroom in agreement leaving all the tension behind.
Therefore, challenge is necessary even if your thinking is wrong because it ensures that every angle of the matter is explored. If the guy in the story had climbed the tree and realised that the group were going in the right direction, what would he have lost? It would only have strengthened the team and secured their objective to reach safety – I also expect the team would work harder and quicker now knowing that they were getting closer to help.
I have climbed the tree a few times before, but usually very quietly, however, but my confidence has started to grow. It is not easy and I am not always right but in breaking up artificial harmony I find it easier to support leadership decisions which inevitably makes me more secure in our decisions as team.
It is a challenge but I believe that we need to climb more trees because there are a lot of things happening in education that are not right.
Are you ready to start climbing?
Lencioni, P. (2014). The Advantage: Why Organisational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. Jossey-Bass