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  • Writer's pictureSobia Iqbal

Sky Diving is a lot like Leadership

by Sobia Iqbal

Perspective and Planning

It’s important to maintain perspective throughout the process of a sky dive. The first time I did one, I was busy with other projects so didn’t have time to focus on anything other than the jump on the day it was supposed to take place. It meant that the anticipation leading up to the jump was not there so I didn’t get time to think about or experience ‘fear’. Your focus determines your reality so I chose to focus on the actual jump rather than leading up to it. It was a conscious decision, which made it easier to control fear and focus on the benefits and the outcome only. I ignored the naysayers around me who were confident enough to express their opinions and dissent towards me as well. It made me feel empowered and purposeful as a result as I was controlling my own inner narrative. I had fun too!

When it comes to leadership, I’ve learnt that it’s important to remain open and positive. Your attitude in times of challenge and fear can be helpful or detrimental. By being open and positive you experience, learn and grow more than if you were fearful or resistant. As a leader, you have to take a step back sometimes – what’s the worst that can happen? It’s also important to be surrounded by the right people. Some people can make the journey easier for you or present you with even more challenges so definitely think about your team and who is in your corner and championing you and who isn’t and then deal with them appropriately.

I had made several big decisions leading up to a jump, both based on fact and gut instinct and even though it’s nerve wracking, as a leader, you have to step up and make those key decisions, even if it upsets some people. If you have the best interests of the staff and students within your organisation, decision-making becomes easier. I have seen some leaders, at all levels, ignore situations and hope they go away, which leads to even more resentment, leading to further problems down the line. So, face those big decisions, take courage and then jump! When surrounded by the right people, they help keep the fun, passion and engagement too.

Other things I have learnt through business leadership, which I don’t see in Educational leadership in some schools I’ve worked in, is the SWOT analysis. Constant evaluation helps us to plan better, gives consideration to opportunities and threats and helps with continuous improvement. We should not just be ‘preparing for Ofsted’, as school improvement should be a continuous process which takes place throughout the year. It’s also a good idea to look at your organisation or department with a fresh perspective. Being able to take feedback from new staff and experienced staff can help you determine critical factors for both success and failure. To assume you know everything as a leader is naïve and at best, the best way to demotivate staff and encourage high turnover in your organisation. Of course, they would never tell you that though.

On the agenda, every leader, whichever part of the organisation, should be evaluating how to drive outcomes to move faster towards goals and you should determine your key influencers to help you do this. It’s important to say ‘No’ to things that take you away from your strategic focus and always be open to taking on new challenges with enthusiasm and tenacity. Be relentless in your commitment for action to move forward.

Some key things to remember:

Plan and execution – rehearse, assess and execute regularly. Planning helps with foundations, helps you to recover missteps and gives you benchmarks for future action. Always have contingency plans in place. The lack of forward planning and strategic thinking is evident in school leadership but just because they can’t do it, doesn’t mean you can’t work around their inconsistencies. Pace yourself and don’t chase every new shiny thing. Make sure you understand why you’re doing things the way you are, anticipate milestones, develop criteria and don’t get blown off track. Say “YES” to things that excite you and ignore things which don’t align with your own vision. Find new goals to keep momentum but also don’t be afraid to stop and let things remain stable for a while. You decide what works for you as a leader.

Trust and Team Work

Trusting those around you. You need to develop trust when skydiving together, especially if it’s a tandem skydive. Both people need to work together and fulfill their roles in order for a jump to be successful and landing safely together. Team success starts long before you get on the plane.

In leadership, clear communication, transparency and honesty are important to move together towards a vision. Transparency is vital and when a leader is open about challenges the organisation is facing, you can work together to form better decision-making processes. Unfortunately, some leaders find it difficult to be transparent and don’t involve other people within their communications or decision-making so therefore end up with disjointed organisations where nobody will speak up and continue to work to a basic standard or produce subpar work as they feel like they don’t belong. Your actions as a leader determine how your staff operate in most cases. If as a leader, you have the inability to be transparent, ask yourself why that might be. Go back to your values and ensure that your team are also focused on their values too. Decision-making within schools should always centre around the best interests of staff and students. That’s what the education profession is about. Teams, culture and relationships mean everything - consistency and being on the same page is important and passing the blame and lack of accountability should always be challenged in any organisation at whichever level you operate at. After all, you wouldn’t be allowed to get on a plane to jump without being checked to ensure risks are mitigated.

Taking Risks (Risk Management)

Skydiving is a risk-taking sport. When you decide to jump, it’s uncomfortable but once you do it, the freefall experience and rush is unbelievable.

In leadership, you have to take calculated risks in order to progress forward. There will be times when it’s scary and uncomfortable but it’s important to drive growth and also prevents boredom from settling in. Lots of experienced teachers feel unmotivated and uninspired because they’ve seen it all before and so making improvements only where they are necessary and allowing them to experiment and think outside the box is vital. How are we going to become world-class if our teachers are tired and unable to try new things? Lose the tick box mentality and encourage more risk-taking. You might even enjoy it yourself and who knows who you might be inspiring at the same time.

Finally, be situationally aware. Trust your instincts and focus on targets you can’t see. The wind might change but you need to learn how to navigate through it for a perfect dive – as leaders, we must feel the changes in the organisation and keep on the trajectory to winning. Change leadership is essential. Be a disruptor and embrace it. Focus on the journey more than the outcome.

Taking the jump (Execution)

Taking the leap and jumping out of a plane requires confidence. You’re falling through the sky and also dealing with lots of people on the day.

Much like an organisation or a department, there are cross-generational teams so active listening and communication is important. Having a 13,000 ft perspective is important so stay curious about the school’s vision. You need to understand where your work fits into the grand scheme of things and once you have understood what your organisation is looking for, you’re able to jump and execute in a strategic way. It’s also important to challenge your leadership teams who are not thinking strategically and the best ones always welcome it. Be bold and ambitious.

With execution, with the best planning, things do not always turn out right. Embrace vulnerability – when you’re in the air, you have uneasiness as you don’t know what’s going to happen. Much like leadership, it’s important to admit when things go wrong and analyse the lessons learnt to improve for next time.

Change Management

The two most powerful motivators for momentum in any change initiative are fear and inspiration. Before I did my first sky dive, I was bored and not challenged by those around me. I had seen more and done more. It seemed like I had taken a step backwards. I needed excitement, intellectual curiousity and inspiration again.

Building staff for mental readiness is vital. Mental readiness and curiosity does not come from fear, but from inspiration. If your organisation is not innovative, look at your leadership style. It’s it inspiring or do you instil fear? Do you consider the impact of change on all staff or do you just push through hoping for the best? Do you take staff concerns seriously or do you minimise them because teachers love to complain? Your role as a leader is to address concerns and negotiate the best outcome for all parties.

Seek Support

The first time I jumped out of plane, I was unable to do it alone, which is why I opted for a tandem jump. The instructor was a more experienced skydiver, knew what he was doing and could provide me with the support I needed for a successful jump.

When in leadership, it’s not enough to go it alone. I went it alone for many years due to the fact that I had lost trust in a leader who did wrong by me. I then learnt, slowly, to trust people around me again and found many coaches and mentors who helped me work through challenges that were presented to me. Working in tandem with other leaders and having the humility to listen to those experienced and having done the work beforehand, is an important part of learning. However, this isn’t true for all leaders and sometimes you might end up knowing more due to your experience so ensure that they can learn from you as well. Nobody knows everything and don’t forget to remain curious about everything around you – education is not the only industry to have great ideas!

Pack your own Parachute

Luckily the first time I jumped, the instructor had a parachute. I didn’t need to worry at all.

Sometimes, we don’t always have good mentors/coaches or leaders. It’s important to understand yourself and be self-aware. Pack your own parachute first. Make sure you look after yourself and maintain a work-life harmony. Only you can determine how much CPD, research, energy and commitment you have to engage with your work whilst maintaining your mental and physical health.

If you feel you’re the best leader ever, ask those around you to ensure that you are. What’s the worst that can happen? They can tell you that you need to improve. Feedback should be a two way process. Titles don’t make leaders, actions and values do.

Sobia attended Queen Mary University from 2001-2004, where she got her degree in Computer Science with Business Management; then later attended the Institute of Education and completed a Secondary ICT PGCE. Sobia has supported the London Mayors’ Campaign for recruitment of BAME educators and is currently a host on Teachers Talk Radio.

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