Want to change the world? Start by making your bed: Questions for school leaders

Nearly four decades ago Navy Seal Admiral William H. McRaven graduated from the University of Texas but what he learnt in the first six months of Seal training set the tone for the rest of his life. In his graduation commencement speech to UT graduates, he shares his navy seal experience in his quest to serve others.

His message about changing the world was more than motivational it was real advice that can make a difference.

It is easy to find excuses in our lives but simple habits and a large dose of effort can not only be a blueprint for personal success but also a framework to change the lives of others.

The message may have been directed to university graduates but it also has a lot to say about school leadership and our quest to make a difference in the lives of our pupils.

Approaching staff, however, to take part in night swims in shark invested waters or team building exercises in sub-zero temperatures neck deep in mud would only add to the current recruitment crisis in teaching.

Teaching is a team game but there are safer options to lead change.

How are we, as school leaders, creating a team culture that drives school improvement and changes the life chances for our pupils?

1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed

McRaven infamously refers to making your bed as the first step to changing the world. It’s a stark reminder that the little things in life are just as important as the big things. More so, making your bed is your first accomplishment of the day and if you had a miserable day you get to come home to a made bed.

How often do you create a sense of accomplishment in your school? And I am not referring to “well done” praise but to systems that develop habits. What are the little things that you encourage? Develop? What are your expectations?

2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle

Absolute harmony is critical to paddle through the surf exercises. McRaven says the only way to successfully complete the course is for everyone to paddle together in equal effort – a true team effort.

How well does your team work together? Are there cliques? Has group-think choked innovation? Or has internal politics stifled honesty and challenge?

If your team is not paddling together how can you reach your destination? More than likely all the effort has resulted in paddling in a big circle. How cohesive is your team? Is there challenge? Or is it a “yes” culture? 

3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers

The old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” is more than relevant in schools. It is quick to judge others for a number of reasons. During Seal training, McRaven refers to one drill boat as the “Munchkins”. They were all quite small, therefore, wearing tiny flippers.  The “munchkins” were not to poke fun at – they out swam, out paddled and out-performed all the other teams.

What is your staff culture? Is it a great equaliser? Or does resentment and fear paralyse team players? Do conscious and unconscious biases play a part into decision making? 

4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward

Uniform inspection during Seal training was a test. Yet, many who quit never understood that no matter how pristine your uniform was – it always failed.

The consequence was to run into the sea, then roll around on the beach until you were completely covered in sand and spend the rest of the day working in cold, wet, sandy clothes – they called this the sugar cookie.

There will be moments in school that no matter how prepared you are or how well you perform you could still end up as a sugar cookie. Failure is part of life and pleasing everybody is unlikely.

How do you manage failure? Is reflection part of your team norms? How does your team move forward following a setback?

5. If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circus

School leaders are regularly challenged with internal and external pressure. Everyday school life consists of teaching pupils, working closely with parents and the community and being under continuous scrutiny.

McRaven shares with the UT graduates that additional exercise that all Seals had to endure was the circus. Unfortunately, the circus is not a place of entertainment but an additional two hour workout aimed at wiping you at. Instead it only made the Seals stronger, more prepared, and resilient.

How do you respond to pressure? Do you find inspection visits laborious or as a learning opportunity? How to do you prepare your teams beforehand?

6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first

The obstacle course is one of the most gruelling tests of physical strength in the Seals programme. McRaven explains how one section consists of a rope that is attached between two towers of differing heights. The first tower stands at three stories and the second tower at one story, creating a steep decline over a long distance. The standard method to descend down the rope was hand over hand, until one Seal took a risk and slid down head first. Risky but successful – he broke the course record.

How do you manage risk? Is it avoided or encouraged within your team? What if it goes wrong, how is it handled?

7. If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks

To really test Seals in training, the Navy would have them swim at night amongst the sharks. Their commanders always reassured them that there has not yet been a recorded shark attack but stay vigilant. And if you are being circled, do not show fear, remain composed – collect yourself.

Surprisingly to some outside teaching, schools come with a lot of unknowns, uncertainties that will test a leader’s resolve.

How do you manage the unknowns? Is your team confident, fluid to respond to a range of scenarios? Is there a practice culture?

8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment

Working under enemy radar to disarm a ship in the middle of the night can be dangerous. McRaven describes swimming under an enemy ship in complete darkness deafened by the thundering sounds from the ship’s engine. It was easy to become disoriented. The key was to remain calm, composed and bring forward all the knowledge and skills you have been practising.

You can quickly sink in school life – heavy workloads, government inspections or high personal expectations can disorientate judgement. Remaining calm plus trusting your team or others is critical.

How well does your team respond in stressful situations? What level is your staff moral in school? Is there a culture of true support? Can people express concerns without judgement? How serious is mental health taken?

9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you are up to your neck in mud

Standing neck deep in the South Californian mud flats between San Diego and Tijuana, McRaven and the others were given an ultimatum. If five soldiers quit, the rest would of them would be freed from the mud. If not, they would endure in the mud overnight. The bone chilling experience was only warmed by a lone voice starting to sing. Within minutes all the soldiers were singing – it only takes one person to change a bad situation.

There will be many times in school where you may be stuck deep in the mud with the walls closing in. In too many instances effort is concerned with the problem not the solutions.

How resilient are you to stay the course? How do you motivate and encourage your team through the good and bad times? What does resilience look like in your school?

10. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell

In the center of the Seal camp stands the infamous brass bell. Whenever a Seal soldier has had enough, they would ring the bell, therefore terminating their Seal training.

More than ever teachers are starting to leave the profession. Fingers point wildly in all directions to blame someone for the growing crisis in schools. But a school’s culture is determined by the leader – they are the pulse of the school.

What is staff turnover like in your school? How are staff concerns addressed? What support is in place to help staff from ringing the bell?

Changing the world starts with small steps but altering the life chance or mindset of one pupil can have a considerable generational effect for good.

Think big, plan small – start by making your bed.

Watch Admiral William H. McRaven’s commencement speech.