Are you a piano mover or a piano player?

I’ve been a Headteacher for five years now and I’m just starting to figure out how it works. Maybe this surprises you. Maybe you expect Headteachers to hit the ground running and, mixing my metaphors, take to the role like a duck to water. Maybe others do (a colleague of mine who I aspire to be like said recently that after seven years he was just getting into his stride), but that never happened for me. The treadmill has always been set to a swift pace with an added gradient that makes the calves burn.

I have a very strong feeling that now, after five years, I have to change how I lead our school. Our school has changed markedly in that time and I haven’t kept pace with that change. I think I’m still trying to lead the way I did when our school was judged, by us before Ofsted got there, by the way, to require improvement.

I took up rowing at university and one of our squad’s favourite phrases was

Are you a piano mover or a piano player?

In other words, are you just a grunt with a big pair of quads who can pull hard or do you have finesse, rhythm, timing? I’m six feet tall which makes me short in oarsman terms. I was never going to be in the meat wagon, the middle four oarsmen or women in an eight where, traditionally, the biggest and strongest rowers found themselves. I was always in the bow or stern pair, the front or rear two, where technique and timing ruled and helped the boat flow through the water. I had some finesse, good timing, and a degree of balance. In an eight the size of the boat, the weight of the crew and the sheer number of oarsmen could hide a multitude of sins in the technique of an oarsman. There was no such hiding place in a pair. With just the two of you timing and balance was everything. You could turn a pair over and end up in the water just trying to break wind. You had to be a piano player.

That’s why my favourite drill in an eight was rowing with our eyes shut. You had to rely on feel only and you knew when you got it right as a crew. The boat glided. It was a thing of beauty.

For my first few years as a Headteacher I had to be a piano mover. We needed to improve rapidly, partly because I was on my own steep learning curve, and this required plenty of grunt and muscle from all of us. The school is in a very different place now and is performing very well. The school doesn’t need a piano mover now, it needs a piano player.

Jon Chaloner, the CEO of GLF Schools, said to me a couple of years ago that taking a school from a position of underperformance to performing well was nothing like the leadership required to go from performing well to becoming exceptional. He was, of course, right. It’s just taken me two years to listen to him and learn.

I have Sir David Carter’s words ringing in my ears. To paraphrase him, a school is probably either improving or declining. If I don’t learn how to play this particular piano quickly my school will start to decline. Self-evidently I cannot allow that to happen.

I am reminded of the time I bought a road bike. I took some good advice from the staff in the bike shop. When I explained what I wanted he said, “You can spend as much money as you want, but you won’t get any faster with a more expensive bike. You are the limiting factor in this equation, not the bike. Lance Armstrong you are not.” If I don’t evolve as a leader and change how I work, how I lead my school, then I will very quickly become the limiting factor in this particular equation. And there’s only one outcome from that.

It’s time for me to change. I can move a piano. Now it’s time for me to learn how to play the piano.

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