The Leadership Thread
Recently I visited a centre in rural Western Australia, smack bang in the middle of mining country. I was surrounded by huge expanses of red earth, orange high visibility work wear, pink and purple sunsets. A symphony of colours amidst a backdrop of steel and machinery, road trucks and iron ore trains. One almost existed in spite of the other, but coexist they did, in a community that was in equal measures both diverse and cohesive.
This was a transient community, people had come from all over the country, indeed from all over the world, to land a job on a mine site and to seek their fortune in the short term, to set up their family for the longer term. Isolated, with no extended families or friends and in a remote location where I've been told the heat in Summer has to be experienced to be understood, and with no intention of staying beyond a carefully pre-planned time frame. It left me wondering, just how do you build a sense of community, a sense of place or belonging, out of that?
In an early childhood education and care centre, I can often feel a sense of welcome and belonging the minute I set foot in the front door. It goes beyond the physical attributes of the centre, to an ambience that's often hard to describe and is often more easily felt. And in this centre, in this most challenging of communities, the feeling of welcome and belonging enveloped me immediately. As I reflected on my visit, I wondered what it was that made such a difference at this place, and I kept coming back to leadership; deliberate and strategic leadership based on a very sensible rationale. The Director had described her community to me, with great fondness, as a community of orphans, herself included! Having come from far and wide and with no extended family, she believed that it was the centre's responsibility to build an extended family for parents. Her mantra was that she expected her team to build relationships with families quickly and as a priority, in order to be able to make a difference for children. She said she had faced criticism for her family first focus, and had been told to focus on children and put families second, after all, wasn't that her core work? And yet she steadfastly remains committed to families, because experience has taught her that families who are isolated and sometimes struggling, who often morph into single parents for weeks on end, need to be doing well in order to do well for their children. It made perfect sense.
As I reflected on my visit, I tried to identify just exactly what it was that made this Director so effective as a leader in such a challenging community, and an analogy kept popping into my head. This leader was like an invisible thread, wrapped around everybody to keep them together, and holding them upright, instilling belief in them, keeping them strong. This is in direct contrast to what I would term the scissors leader. You know who they are, you've probably worked for them, I certainly have! They're the ones who cut the thread to separate people, to make small, everyday incisions that leave you doubting yourself, and through their handiwork leave you weakened and in need of repair. Now as fond as I am of an analogy, I'm an even bigger fan of the good old acronym! Not everyone agrees. In a past life, a scissor leader hacked in to my many attempts to create acronyms as mnemonics, and not one of my little pearls of literary wisdom got a guernsey. But my current boss is much more receptive to my ideas, so below I describe the Thread Leadership Model, developed to describe the leadership that I was privileged to witness at this remote Western Australian centre.
This leader was tenacious. She was crystal clear from the get go - this was her space, her community, her team, children and families. She would protect them to the ends of the earth and back. Community meant everything - once you were there, you were their's. I became theirs as well! The urgency of embracing families into the community was palpable. It's part of the fabric of the place, you can feel it, you can sense it, it envelopes you.
There was no time for game playing here, no time for gossiping, no hidden agendas, and it was understood by all that they would not be entertained. Feedback was honest, always delivered professionally and kindly in a way that empowered educators to understand and grow, and was quickly followed up with praise and positive reinforcement. I've seen dishonest leaders who leave even the brightest and most resilient floundering and directionless. I've worked for dishonest leaders who turn staff over like a well worn mattress. But leadership here was brave, immediate, honest and kind.
I watched this resilience in action. The capacity to recover quickly and move on. To not let the difficulties, the repeated disappointments, get in the way. To remain positive and optimistic in the face of ongoing issues. To be constantly thinking of new ways to address old problems, with enthusiasm and innovation, what's more!
There was a tangible belief among the team that every child, every family and every educator deserved to be supported fully and wholeheartedly, without judgement or prejudice. People came first, always. There was a spoken out loud commitment to the belief that everyone was doing the best that they could do. There was a clear expectation from the Director that educators would support families to be comfortable and confident, so that they could parent to the best of their abilities.
There was a partnership approach in the work that the centre did with families. The Director and educators stood beside families to figure out how to navigate through the newness of remote WA. They listened carefully, and they communicated often. They saw themselves as equal participants with families, and aimed to empower them to know and understand the community, their own strengths, and to build their capacity to function independently.
There was an urgency at the centre, a sense of obligation to get things done. If promises were made, then you could count on them being delivered. I saw this first hand. If a parent said something in passing, it was systematically recorded and followed up on, if not by the Director, then by delegation. This forward moving focus was results driven, and took careful and deliberate planning, but was executed in a personal and relaxed manner.
There are certainly pieces of this Thread that are evident in many leadership models, and were also seen in the work of the leader at this centre. She was passionate and innovative, inspirational and a great communicator, and had many other characteristics and behaviours that we think of in the leadership space. But this remote centre, under resourced and isolated in and of itself, was getting the job done, with the clear goal of getting it right for children and families. Did they have a strategic plan? - nope. Did they have a vision statement? - nope. Mission? - nope. Philosophy? - yep, but it didn't do them justice. What they did have was a leadership thread that came together to shape the fabric of the place. While I was there for only a short time, I will remember it for a long time. It's heartening to know that peppered all over the country, even in remotest communities, we have the most skillful and talented people in our sector who really do make a difference in the lives of children and families every day, and its my privilege to work with them.