From the magazine: Personal mastery

In the second instalment of a new series of articles – Driving School Improvement – Stephen Mitchell, chief operating officer at the Spencer Academies Trust in Nottingham, looks at personal mastery – the first aspect of the ‘learning organisation model’ – and why you should never stop learning

There’s a famous saying that to become an expert in anything takes 10,000 hours of practice. Ten thousand hours! That’s 5.5 years of being a SBL – if you work 37.5 hours a week, 48 weeks per year. Wow.

Fortunately, we don’t need to let statistics like that scare us off. None of us are complete newbies to the SBL world – we’ve all got a lifetime of experience that we can bring to bear on our roles, and all of that experience is hugely valuable in making you the person that you are today. We also have a great community of like-minded peers reading this magazine – and wider afield – to call friends, who readily give their time and expertise to assist others. We are very fortunate as a profession. And yet, as a profession, we need to do more. We need to get better.

I wrote last month about the learning organisation (LO) model and how, by adopting this, we can improve our schools. This article talks about personal mastery – the first of the five building blocks within the LO model.

Education is evolving

In many ways, schools can be seen as not very dynamic places. Perception – particularly by people outside of the sector and those who don’t see what goes on in our schools, day-in, day-out – could be forgiven for thinking that education doesn’t really change – it’s rows of children sitting down, being taught the wisdom of the world.

We know this isn’t the case – and thank goodness that education isn’t the same today as the system that I grew up with! The system is evolving and improving and it needs to continue to do so – and so do we.

Personal mastery isn’t about clocking up the hours – it’s about developing a mechanism whereby you’re always learning, not repeating the same mistakes, and being the best you can be at your role. Peter Senge, who put forward the theory of learning organisations in 1990, defined personal mastery as:

People with a high level of personal mastery share several basic characteristics. They have a special sense of purpose that lies behind their visions and goals. For such a person, a vision is a calling rather than simply a good idea. They see current reality as an ally, not an enemy. They have learned how to perceive and work with forces of change rather than resist those forces. They are deeply inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more and more accurately. They feel connected to others and to life itself. Yet they sacrifice none of their uniqueness. They feel as if they are part of a larger creative process, which they can influence but cannot unilaterally control.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’, creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see that ‘the journey is the reward’.

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These are massive paragraphs, full of nuance and wisdom. I’m struck by the difference between the common understanding of mastery as being ‘expert’, and how Senge sees it as recognising it as a never-ending journey, one where we’re continually questioning and learning. I know I, all too often, assume I have the answers, rather than questioning and trying to find a better way.

Creative tension

Senge goes on to discuss personal mastery as being a key ally to having the right people on board with you. Imagine an elastic band, stretched between your vision and your reality. The tension can only be released in one of two ways – towards the vision, or towards the reality. Having people on your team that understand this, and hold true to the vision, is absolutely crucial if we are to be successful. This tension, between vision and reality, is called the ‘creative tension’; those who have personal mastery can master this creative tension.

A really great part of the personal mastery element is that of how we view failure. I know many people who view themselves as failing because they’re not achieving everything on their to-do lists. They are the furthest possible thing from failing; they are a huge success and I love them dearly for the personality they bring to the office, the sheer amounts of success they do achieve, how they add immeasurably to the organisation – and I’m in awe of them. However, if we ascribe traditional failure as being ‘not getting the desired outcome’, then it was Edison who said he didn’t fail – he just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.

Failure is simply a gap between the vision and the current reality. Nothing about the reality is final or fixed – we can move forward from there, learning as we go.

Tracking progress

CPD is a hugely useful, almost pre-requisite for ensuring you can achieve personal mastery. If you don’t put fuel in your car, you’re not going anywhere – and it’s the same with your development. If you’re not learning new things, you’re not developing.

This doesn’t mean expensive training courses all the time – some of the best CPD is by recognising what is happening around you and having conversations about that. Similarly, reading EdExec can unearth some hidden gems and real nuggets of advice. I know that I’ve come across a few cracking ideas as I’ve read articles which I’ve then gone on to use in my day job.

If you’re a member of the ISBL (and if you’re not, you really should consider it), they have a CPD log on their website. It’s a great way to record what CPD you’re getting and provides an opportunity to reflect on it. One of my recurrent New Year’s resolutions is to do more self-reflection and journaling. On the rare occasions that I have done this I have found it to be so useful to clarify my thoughts and to allow me to monitor and track progress, as well as providing a platform for self-accountability. I know others find solace in writing blogs, and now wouldn’t give this up for all the proverbial tea in China.

Whatever works for you, I would encourage you to achieve personal mastery – it’s the building block from this time forward. In the coming editions I’ll explore the other aspects of the learning organisation model.

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