Having now worked for over 15 years in secondary education, I have come to realise how insular it is in danger of being. I often make generalisations to pupils about business leaders or entrepreneurs without fully understanding their working lives, their motivations, their modes of thinking and perhaps most importantly, their approaches to leadership.
So, when I was put forward for a pilot mentoring project in 2018 that aimed to pair young women leaders in education with leaders from business, the public sector and the military, I was excited by the prospect. Suddenly, I had access to leaders from a world far removed from the rigidity of school life and from fixed thinking about school improvement.
This book, by Ian Wigston and Hilary Wigston of Brightfield Consulting describes the success of this project and in doing so, emphasises the importance of looking outside education in order to build the confidence and efficacy of women leaders within education.
The book describes a number of the community projects that were implemented: women leaders from a range of schools were grouped together to identify an issue common to their schools, research and find and create effective solutions. The projects are as varied as they are exciting: from school building projects in Africa to reading projects in Birmingham, it was clear these women were on a mission!
The INSIGHTS profile completed for each leader on the project really enabled mentees to gain a better understanding of themselves and their leadership styles. This is a document, some years on, that I have up in my office for constant reference- it has been instrumental in how I develop my own leadership style and effectiveness and my own self-awareness.
The mentoring course was punctuated with two conferences, one at Godolphin and Latymer School and one at The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Both of these events were key in continuing to develop mentees’ leadership capacity. What is captured brilliantly by the book is the experience of listening to Commodore Melanie Robinson, who shared the story of her naval career and the struggle she felt to retain a sense of self inside the organisation, perhaps a familiar feeling for female leaders in education. The book quotes her talk, “ I’ve been bullied. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been challenged by my organisation. I’ve complained”. Mel’s talk emphasised the need for courage in leadership, she shared an iconic moment as she took command of HMS Express in 1998:
“ As I was driving my ship (you do drive a ship) out of Troon and coming to the narrowest point in the channel, one of my ship’s crew came and offered me a bacon butty. I was being witnessed and filmed by the national press. So, I turned the ship around, I reburthed and I rebriefed the ship’s company on what we were going to do next. I explained that whatever that was, it was not going to be the way I would command the ship. It wasn’t a normal command: people were watching my every move, waiting for me to have an accident, to have issues to demonstrate that women at sea was not a good thing”.
Mel’s talk resonated with me, and it is one of the reasons I wanted to approach her, some years later, to ask if she would mentor me as I’m interested in military approaches to decision-making and strategic planning.
This write-up of the Women in Leadership project is a brilliant example of what can happen when we broaden our horizons, look outside and beyond our realms of experience and opportunities like this can ultimately increase self-belief, self-confidence and give young women leaders a much-needed nudge to embark on their next exciting challenge.
The book is available to purchase from John Catt – https://www.johncattbookshop.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=The+magic+of+the+space+between