Drop the anchor


3 min read
03 Dec
03Dec

Sometimes, as headteachers it's good to stand still. This is especially true at the moment with all the chaos and churn that is going on. It goes against our gut instinct though; as school leaders we are hardwired to press on regardless, and keep going no matter what. The problem here of course, is that in so doing it’s easy to lose sight of the destination, and before we know it, we are lost. All at sea. 

This is why it’s okay to drop the anchor. All the best sailors do it. Yes, you could just bite the bullet and try to plot a course that drives directly into the storm, head-on. Tactically, this might just work, even though you know the journey won’t be pleasant, especially as you have a precious cargo. It's not worth the risk. 

So sometimes it's best to stay still. To drop the anchor, regroup and wait for the storm to subside. What this then allows you to do is find the time and space to clear the decks of unwanted clutter. More importantly, dropping anchor allows you to focus only on the really important things that matter right now, like your wellbeing and that of your staff. 

It is not a race. If you drop anchor, chances are, you’ll still arrive at your destination just as quickly, and everyone will still thank you for it; for taking your time, for keeping people safe, and above all, for showing that you care. Nobody wants a reckless pilot, regardless of their best intentions. 

During the past few weeks, I have spoken to a number of headteachers who needed to drop anchor. Deep down, they’ve known it too, but had been reluctant to do so due to unnecessary pressure to keep on sailing through the storm. Granted, some of these pressures were self-imposed. But not all. Some of them came from pressures elsewhere from within the system, be it an overzealous LA, trust board, or some other regulatory body. 

It's easy to see how these unrealistic demands can impact negatively on mental health and wellbeing. As a head struggling to keep a school open, it most likely feels as if all you seem to be doing is running around simply to stand still. It's as if you are spending all your time re-arranging the deck chairs, all the while making sure the band plays on at all costs. Historically, we all know how that ended up, and so the wise school leaders know when it is time to drop anchor and check the map. Enough is enough.

Sometimes though, it's not always that easy, especially when headteachers are under constant pressure to stick to the plan, particularly if new to the job. Milestones soon become millstones. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, and that everything has to be 'rapid', 'accelerated'', 'sustainable', and of course, forensically granular. When in a storm, there is little point in frantically counting individual grains when most of the sacks have long since gone overboard. As important as it once was, there are more pressing things to be doing. 

RAG ratings can easily kill any sense of progress, especially if people are constantly reminding you that you are not 'on track'. For them, standing still is not an option. I know: I've been there myself as a CEO and chair of governors, and should probably be the first person to put their hand up when it comes to making unrealistic demands. 

The problem we have at the moment, is that there is no track. If there was, then nobody has ever run it before. No-one has a personal best or knows what is expected. It's new to us all. There are literally no track records. So to expect anybody to claim to know how long it should be taking you to get to the third bend is plain daft. So long as you get round - and safely - then that is all that matters. You can always pick up speed further down the line if you feel the need to.

More importantly, dropping anchor allows you to focus only on the really important things that matter right now, like your wellbeing and that of your staff. 

Governing bodies are caught between the ultimate rock and a hard place. They are acutely aware of their role to challenge and hold to account, and of course they still need to do this. But do they really need to insist on measuring the same things as they did this time last year? Besides, there is no meaningful assessment data, so there seems little point, especially when there are other more worthwhile things that can be checked up on. Things like fuel gauges, safety vests, and temperature levels.

The best governing bodies understand this and will allow the headteacher time and space to drop the anchor. These governors and trustees understand that at this moment in time it is all about climate control. They are very aware of the need to take stock intelligently, and to check that everyone is alright and able to carry on; to give staff and young people a chance to catch their breath and calm down; to regroup and make sure that they are all still doing the right things well. 

Dropping anchor does not mean that you have lost your way. Tactically, it’s actually a great move, so long as everyone is aware of what you are doing and why. (It would be unwise to just yank on the brake with no warning, unless of course it really is an emergency.) 

Strategically though, if you do drop anchor, nothing much will change. It does not mean that you’ve lost sight of the destination (or objective), or that you have run out of steam. It’s quite the opposite in fact, as it allows you to recalibrate, and recharge before you push on. Not only are you then able to doublecheck the compass, but you are also stabilising the vessel before you are ready to continue the journey. If this means you drift a bit, not to worry, that's normal, the anchor will hold you firm. Above all though, dropping anchor is the sign of a skillful, assured and strong leader, who understands that arriving safe is better than not arriving at all.


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