At HMC in October, one of our Unreasonable panellists, Charlotte Pearce, spoke about building a culture of entrepreneurship in schools. She asked the room of assembled Heads, ‘How often are you allowed to fail as leaders?’ A murmur of acknowledgement said it all.
Courage, defined by Professor Andrew Martin as ‘perseverance in the face of difficulty and fear’, has been linked to academic performance and engagement. Where confidence is lacking, students who can harness their will to carry on, despite their fear, are able to perform almost as well as their more capable peers.
And yet, the opposite of courage – avoidance – is the elephant in every classroom. Many (often high-performing) students would rather avoid trying, than experience the pain and difficulty of the potential failure. And many teachers (and Heads), facing the huge pressures of time, expectation and scarce resource, would often rather take the knowable route than a risk.
We have seen, working with thousands of students across the last five years, that moments of courage lead to rising confidence, and moments of avoidance lead to a debilitating fear. But, in spite of the clear benefits of courageous action, so many opportunities are missed. Why?
Many have traditionally used the language of power to catalyse courage – ‘summon your strength’, ‘put on your armour’, ‘toughen up’. But what if we start at the other end? The second part of Martin’s definition speaks to Brene Brown’s powerful call to vulnerability, in which we expect and applaud an authentic engagement with our own fear. And this engagement starts at the top – do Heads across the UK ever admit they’re fearful?
Our Founder, Duncan Piper, was invited to contribute to the Principal’s Lecture at Cheltenham Ladies’ College earlier this year. He sat on the front row as Eve Jardine-Young shared with some five hundred girls across three year groups, and many parents and governors too, the struggle she had gone through to manage (though not overcome) her stammer. On that stage, she was true – she wasn’t a flawless, unreachable hero. And in that moment, she didn’t jostle her girls to be courageous but, instead, welcomed them all onto that stage of leadership alongside her.
Tips to Turn up the Courage:
1. Turn up the courage in your assemblies. Share your own moments of vulnerability and risks you have taken – what did they make possible for you? By sharing them you give your students and fellow staff permission to do the same.
2. Show your students what struggles look like during difficult times, as well as after they have been overcome, like these testimonials from young people living with mental health issues in the present tense.
3. Share this inspiring video of an American Muslim taking a courageous risk outside Trump Towers. Showing vulnerability can be scary, but what possibilities can it open up?
4. Invite a member of staff to enrol in COURAGEworks, Brene Brown’s online learning community for developing bravery and courage. Ask them to share their learning with your staffroom and the whole school.
5. Give feedback courageously with Kim Scott’s practice of ‘Radical Candour’ – learn how to Care Personally and Challenge Directly