Beware the school leader’s blind spots
OPINION: Those of us who have learned to drive a motor vehicle will no doubt recall the driving instructor alerting us to ‘blind spots’, the parts of the road to the side and slightly behind your vehicle that you can’t see in your side or rear view mirrors.
At the very least, failure to check those blind spots when changing lanes or turning can be dangerous; at the very worst, it can be catastrophic.
In many ways, school leaders can be seen as drivers – they drive the school vision, they steer the school’s program, they accelerate teachers’ professional learning, and they put the brakes on inappropriate student behaviour.
And they face blind spots, too, which, if neglected, will have a derailing impact on the work of school leaders (and perhaps their longer-term careers).
Blind spots are unproductive behaviours often invisible to a school leader but glaringly obvious to others in the school community.
Surprisingly, many school leaders recognise these blind spots in their colleagues (and even in their corporate counterparts), yet they fail to recognise them in themselves.
Common school leadership blind spots include: remaining unaware of the importance of consultation when making important decisions; losing touch or disconnecting with what is actually happening in a school and not realising it; being perceived as unapproachable by others despite an open-door policy that would suggest the opposite; and remaining oblivious to behaviours that tend towards cronyism.
Others include: unwittingly micromanaging others to whom they have delegated key tasks; ignorantly but unintentionally being focused on the short term without due regard to longer-term big picture; and remaining unaware about insensitive behaviours or traits that adversely affect others.
Still others create a blind spot by forming an inner circle of key advisers – perhaps their favourite teachers or other school leaders – which can jeopardise the school leader’s capacity to take on board new ideas and see the reality of current situations.
In these situations, school leaders remain ignorant to the fact that the creation of an inner circle inadvertently blocks out alternative and often contrasting views and ideas.
A classic blind spot that often creates extreme frustration is a school leader’s inability to accept that they might be wrong – often termed ‘the know it all’ blind spot. As annoying as fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, this occurs when a school leader wrongfully assumes that they already know the correct answer or best course of action and refuses to listen to others.
The good news is that blind spots can be cured. And the starting point for their treatment is developing much greater self-awareness.
The problem, however, is that school leaders often cannot develop a greater self-awareness to vanquish their blind spots on their own (after all, they are called blind spots). They need to enlist the help of those who they work with to overcome these challenges, which might otherwise derail their performance.
One of the best ways for a school leader to address blind spots is to spend more time out of the school environment, broadening their circle of contacts outside the immediate education sphere. Simply understanding how those from other industries or professions think and act can facilitate a greater level of reflection and self-awareness.
Extending their current reach within the school community by connecting with a wider range of teachers, parents, students and others can help school leaders become more grounded and better able to take the appropriate actions to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the impact of their blind spots.
For others the most effective way to gain an insight into their blind spots is to engage a workplace coach, perhaps a trusted colleague, who can act as a sounding board, help raise self-awareness and assist in eliminating identified career-ravaging blind spots.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA