360 Diagnostic Education NPQSL Self Awareness Succeeding in Senior Leadership Understanding Self

Surfing, sinking and swimming

The paper ‘Surfing, sinking and swimming’ outlines the differences between surfing, swimming and sinking.

  • Surfing (Coming Alive), Sinking (Surviving), Swimming (Coping)
    • Surfing is like the flow or possibly arousal state;
    • Swimming is like the control state;
    • Sinking is like the anxiety and/or worry state;

Does this resonate with your own experience?

My response…

“…leadership does not happen evenly or consistently. Leaders will have periods when they feel they are surfing, others when they seem to be sinking and periods when they are swimming along fine. The idea that they can be competent, unfailing and effective all the time is another idealistic and burdensome fantasy. It is normal as a leader to have periods when you think you are sinking and others when you are just getting by; it is an inherent part of leading.”

Binney, G, Wilke, G & Williams, C, 2005, Living Leadership A Practical Guide For Ordinary Heroes, Harlow, Prentice Hall.

Phew! For a moment there I thought I’d better come clean, admit I was a fraud, and quietly exit the NPQSL course. If you’ve had a week like mine then you’ll probably have cycled through all three of these feelings every day and possibly even within one lesson. In fact Wednesday was particularly tough so I’d chalked up all three by break time! And it turns out that this is fine…..result.

There are any number of reasons why we might be finding it difficult to get into that surfing/flow state but let’s just focus on one culprit for a little while. There is simply too much to do! Or to look at it another way we’re trying to do too much….on our own.

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Finding Flow – What is Flow and how do you achieve it as a senior leader?

The materials included in the section draw on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and I was immediately drawn to them as I was at least familiar with the idea. I first came across the concept of flow whilst participating in adventure sports like climbing or skiing. Flow is described as “a time when we are totally focused, happy and totally engaged in whatever we are doing” and Csikszentmihalyi talks about this as “essentia

Challenge_vs_skill.svglly stepping into an alternative reality”. I’m was intrigued to learn how as a senior leader one might attain this almost ecstatic state.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that this can only happen when someone has been very well trained and developed technique but that flow is achievable by everybody because it is essentially about balancing levels of challenge and skill. He develops the idea further by identifying the flow channel as being the essential basis for continued personal improvement. He introduces several other states: apathy, boredom, relaxation, control and arousal which essentially form a continuum with the flow channel being between control and arousal. Clearly if you’re at the one end of this you’re neither inspiring yourself or capable of leading others. We need to be operating at the optimal level. Being in control is a comfortable place to be but its not exciting. If you want to enter flow from control you have to up the level of challenge Moving from the flow channel to arousal (pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone) and back again to flow is where you develop higher skills. If you judge this process of flexing from one state to another and back again you should raise the flow threshold and in so doing increase your capacity for further development. I kind of imagine it a little like building strength in a muscle.

As the introductory ‘thinkpiece’ to the module suggests the key skill therefore is a commitment to self-learning and ‘stretch’. It is clear how Kolb’s Learning Cycle in tandem with Boyatzis’s ideas on Self Directed Learning and the use a solid coaching model can help anyone accurately evaluate their current level of skill, identify suitably challenging targets and so more routinely operate in the flow channel.

But what about creating conditions not just for an individual to achieve flow state but also a group or organisational to do the same? This has to be the ultimate aim in order to create “networked, self-organising and self-managing institutions, which support the development of a rich leadership capacity at all levels within the school.” A leader will not only attend to their own personal and professional growth but also pay close attention to the people within the team……it’s not rocket science really and John Adair‘s model of task, team, individual is just as useful.

Adair Model



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Impact, Influence and Self Awareness

We’re always explaining to pupils that  they need to be good listeners but do we always model that good behaviour ourselves? Although we all like to think we’re good at listening to other people it’s interesting how sometimes other people don’t feel as though they’re being listened to. Developing this skill allows us to understand the needs of others, adapt our approach accordingly and so influence others in a more considered manner. Indeed getting better at seeing ourselves as others see us is an essential leadership quality. Accurately gauging the impact you have on other people is essential in forming and developing effective teams whose goal is continuous improvement.

So where to start? Some obvious ways of getting feedback to help become more self aware already include:

  • Whole School Level: whole school Pupil Perception Surveys;
  • Department Level: getting pupils to provide feedback about their attitudes to particular subjects;
  • Personal Level: lesson observations, video analysis and annual Performance Management evaluations;

Of course there are limitations to using these sources exclusively. The school and department feedback is by its nature general and requires you to draw inferences which may or may not be valid to a particular teacher. In the PM process we’re reflecting on our our own performance generally using statistical measures to help us set new targets; there is little in the way of objective qualitative feedback.

A more refined picture (provided you choose the respondents correctly) is produced by a 360º Diagnostic Report. But what about getting your classes to give specific feedback about your teaching?  In his work on visible learning John Hattie devotes some time to student evaluations of teachers (SET) as ‘central to lasting school improvement’. Hattie, J (2012). Visible Learning For Teachers – Maximising Impact on Learning p.159

‘The lesson with the students is completed, but the story continues. So often, the plea now is for reflection – but this is not my message. Reflection quickly turns into post-hoc justification. I have watched so many teachers talk about their lessons or react to videos of their teaching, and they can certainly wax lyrical about what happened, why they did this rather than that – and when asked to consider how to do better, so often they focus on what they should do more in the future. When they watch the same class through the eyes of the student, they are much more silent!’ Hattie (2012) p.155

Hattie discusses the work of Irving whose SET was developed specifically to evaluate maths teaching but it could ‘form a set of prompts for teachers to evaluate their level of inspiration and passion’. Hattie (2012) p.160

So….my plan is to use a version of  Irving’s SET (Irving Student Evaluation) using a Google Form with my teaching groups. I’d like to think that I:

  • challenge my students to think through problems and solve them either on their own or as a group (before asking for help);
  • encourage students to value history as a subject;
  • help students to make sense of the concepts and skills in history;
  • get students to think about the nature and quality of their work;
  • develop students’ abilities to think and reason in a historical manner and to have a historical point of view;
  • encourage students to try different techniques to answer historical questions;
  • show students interesting and useful ways to solve problems;

Will my students see things in the same way I do?