What can our littlest learners teach us about leadership?

Emma Turner, author of Be More Toddler, explores how some of our biggest lessons in leadership can come from our smallest learners…

Having an epiphany in a softplay ball pit might seem like an unusual way to develop leadership skills but, for me, was exactly what happened. This epiphany continued to drive my career whilst juggling three small children all aged five and under. Flexible working, parenting, retaining key staff and maternity are often inextricably linked, which is unsurprising given that the largest number of people leaving the teaching profession (after retirees) at 37% are women between the ages of 30 and 40.

However, rather than being just the sole default thinking for new mothers, thinking flexibly and differently about leadership can help encourage so many more people to think of leadership as inherently doable and compatible with their values and lifestyle. For too long, the narratives around leadership have been centred around always being present, giving of yourself 100% and driving change. For many, this seems an unobtainable standard, or is misaligned with their wish to balance other commitments.

Whilst on my third maternity leave in five years from my co-headship role I became acutely aware that, despite me having been in successful school leadership roles for almost 15 years, both at individual school and local authority level, there was somewhat of an expectation – outside of my incredibly supportive school and governors – amongst some of the wider leadership communities in which I worked that I would automatically be taking a step down now that I had such a large caring commitment at home.

Embracing the change

It was during this time that I began to observe my own three young children at home and marvelled at the sweeping changes in organisation, behaviour, commitments, eating, purchasing – and definitely sleeping – that they had effected in our lives.

They hadn’t effected this change having been on a multitude of leadership courses, or by attending regular seminars or coaching sessions. For much of the time they were insomniac, loud, obstreperous and exhausting but, in equal measure, they were brave, honest, loving, unafraid to be vulnerable, fascinated by learning and totally engrossed in the people and things that loved and mattered to them.

I began to see how my own leadership style often overlapped with many of the positive aspects we typically think of as toddler behaviours. I also realised how much of the work on leadership development, when stripped back, was incredibly simple to explain, understand and, therefore, potentially do. There are so many people who could make incredibly skilled leaders who are intimidated by the narrow, singular confines of ‘traditional’ leadership. With the right encouragement to take that leap, I’m sure more could start to consider leadership as something within their grasp.

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In my own leadership of work at individual, county and MAT level, I regularly employ strategies which can just as easily be seen in positive aspects of toddler behaviour. However, just as the words ‘toddler behaviour’ are often misinterpreted by being applied only to describe negative aspects, we also need to change the associated narrative around ‘part-time leadership’ and ‘flexible working in leadership’.

Widening the leadership talent lens

The education system has been relatively slow to catch up with providing opportunities for flexible working – due, in part, to the standard school day’s timetable. However, timetables aside, there is still so much more that could be done to encourage more flexibility. To haemorrhage talent from a pool of experienced staff, losing 37% of leavers from one single demographic, is a need for accommodating change writ large.

Most adults will have attended a school with a ‘one school, one full time headteacher’ model and, despite there being a growing number of co-headships, shared headships and flexible working within school leadership roles, these are still at a fledgling stage in terms of numbers. The adult population, therefore, has no experience or benchmark of how this might look or work and so the idea of not having a one head model can seem radical, different and has the potential to be viewed with some suspicion.

However, just as our toddlers view every new situation as an opportunity for fun, learning and development, so too should we, as educators, view the leadership models we employ as not being fixed, static or opposed to change and development but as an opportunity to explore the huge talent pools and experience from a much wider demographic. This widening of the leadership talent lens can only bring with it positive improvements, including more balance, fresh perspectives and broader opportunities.

Flexible working provides opportunities to retain carers, parents, those managing health conditions as well as colleagues who may want to reduce their hours towards the latter part of their careers. Leadership, and its associated behaviours, is long overdue for demystification and all of us, regardless of our current roles, could learn a lot from our youngest learners and simply be more toddler.

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