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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

Headteachers and the Rocket Science of Decision-Making

Last week I finished reading 'Abyss', Max Hastings' account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Towards the end I came across a quote from Dean Acheson, a former Secretary of State who had advised President Kennedy that resonated strongly. Acheson, who had consistently urged a hawkish position of bombing and invasion of Cuba (which Kennedy had eschewed), wrote to the president after the threat of nuclear war had receded:

"May I congratulate you on your leadership, firmness and judgment over the past tough week. We have not had these qualities at the helm in this country at all times. It is good to have them again. Only a few people know better than me how hard these decisions are to make, and how broad the gap between the advisers and the decider."

Now I don't wish to equate the role of headteacher and the role of national leader, but there is something profound - at any level - in those last few words: "how broad the gap between the advisers and the decider". I make this point having spent an equal amount of time on senior leadership teams as an 'assistant' or a 'deputy' as I did as 'headteacher' and, when the chips are truly down, the gap Acheson spoke of can feel like a gulf or chasm.

What are the reasons for this difference, I began to wonder keeping in mind both the information from the history book I was reading and my experience of being in the hot-seat of the decider? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Schools are complex places. Decisions are rarely simple unequivocal goods even, and sometimes especially, when they seem to be so to others. The advisers giving competing advice will almost always have some degree of right on their side.

  2. A decision must always be made. At some point, the talking has to cease and the doing has to commence. Knowing when that point comes is sometimes obvious but is more often a matter of judgment, one that falls to the person making that decision.

  3. Outcomes are rarely guaranteed. In making decisions that are based on competing alternatives, there is no certainty that the intentions will be fulfilled. And by choosing against other options, the devilish "what if?" counterfactuals are created.

  4. Little decisions can often become big decisions. The 'butterfly effect' always applies and seemingly innocuous choices between competing goods can have profound implications. Leaders never know which benign choices will blow back at them.

  5. Fears about decisions made must be contained. As good as your professional and personal nearest and dearest people are at supporting and sustaining you, they are unlikely to be the ones who wake up in the early hours going back over the "what ifs".

  6. Success has many parents. The best decisions, the ones with the best outcomes, will always be seen as a joint endeavour. The best leaders will go out of their way to make sure that this is the case, recognising others and downplaying their role.

  7. But failure is an orphan. The worst decisions, the ones with the worst outcomes, will always be seen as a failure of judgment. The best leaders will go out of their way to make sure that they absorb this, forgiving others even if they are not forgiven in turn.

  8. The buck stops here. To continue the presidential theme, responsibility always leads back to the person whose name is on the signage, on the inspection report, on the accounts and, perhaps most crucially, on the lips of the community's stakeholders.

  9. Apparently right decisions often feel wrong. Even when most outcomes are positive, it is easy for decision-makers to dwell upon the aspects of those decisions that had a negative impact on people, even if there are very few who have been 'wronged'.

  10. Apparently wrong decisions rarely feel right. Even where there are unintended and positive consequences to a decision that largely proved to be incorrect, these give small consolation. The greater good must always be served for leaders.

  11. Best practice models frown upon failure. Our theories of change around leadership have been rooted in 'best practice' approaches for decades now, with a focus on leaders sharing their successes and keeping very quiet about their failures.

  12. Owning bad decisions has a personal cost. Feelings of embarrassment, folly, shame and guilt are natural reactions to wrong decisions. Admitting to such feelings is much less natural and far less culturally expected, leaving them unprocessed.

There is a "broad gap" between advising and deciding. Most of the time, school leaders keep that gap as small as possible by engaging in collective and collaborative decision-making with their teams. Most have a distributive approach to leadership which seeks to empower the decision-making of others. But, when the chips are down and when times are at their toughest (as has increasingly seemed to be the case in recent years), there remains a decision-making role to be played. Had JFK followed Acheson's advice and decided to bomb and then invade Cuba the world may not have been able to tell the tale. And if it had, it would not have been a tale about Acheson's advice, but about Kennedy's decisions.

Which is why the quote from Acheson is magnanimous and meaningful. And for all of you headteachers who have had a "past tough week", including perhaps a feeling of having made some bad decisions with less-than-ideal outcomes, I want nonetheless to "congratulate you for your leadership, firmness and judgment". If can help you to keep on going (see the other pages of this site) then please do get in touch.

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