23 Sep Listening, Learning and then Leading
In our parents’ newsletter, Principal Dr Cook explains why he believes great leadership starts with listening.
One of many wisdoms attributed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama is: “When you talk, you only repeat what you know; But when you listen, you learn something new”. It’s hard to argue that there’s a deep-seated truth in this.
Listening is perhaps the most important, yet most underrated communications skill. When we come to choosing leaders, the trend is that we often select them on the basis of their rhetorical skills, rather than their ability to listen. It could be argued that many political systems, for instance, are geared up to elect those who can articulate their own views, rather than actively listen to the people they have a mandate to represent. And sometimes this can be to the detriment of their ability to do the job.
A key part of my philosophy of leadership focuses on three ‘L’s: Listening, learning, and then leading. I believe that if you want to have your finger on the pulse of an organisation, you have to understand the people through which its lifeblood flows. At Woodstock that means our staff, our students, and you, their parents.
One of the first tasks since my arrival has been to set up individualised 45-minute meetings with each staff member at the school. So far, I’ve been able to meet with more than 40 of them from roles across the school. I’ve asked what their hopes and dreams for Woodstock are, the challenges they face, and how I can help to facilitate their work here.
In asking these questions, I have begun to understand both the present strengths and future challenges that lie ahead for the Woodstock community. These meetings have allowed me to make personal connections with the full spectrum of people who are currently engaged in shaping Woodstock into the school that it is today. My best hope for this exercise is that it will enable me to lead more effectively by having invested time listening to and learning from the school’s staff, with insight derived from their collective knowledge and experience, rather than just my own autobiographical perspective.
A school, of course, wouldn’t exist without its students, and by listening to them I’ve already learnt a great deal. One area students have been particularly vocal, and eloquent, concerns reducing our environmental impact, in line with our Guiding Principle of ‘treading lightly on the earth’. As a result of listening to students we’ve got movement in two areas where recent decisions have been made at the School Council. The first is around hot water timings at dorms, which we have reduced for the sake of water conservation. The other concerns a move away from plastic bottled water on campus, which we hope to be able to implement in the near future.
Nearly every day another report emerges of the environmental damage caused by our society’s wanton use of plastics, often in a way that adds little or no real value to our lives. Drinking bottled water seems counter-intuitive considering our location. We are blessed with Midlands Stream, an excellent source of Himalayan spring water just a few hundred yards from Woodstock’s dorms. By the time that same water has reached a bottling plant far away it will have passed through hundreds of kilometres of agricultural, industrial and urban land, and all the contaminants associated with them. It is then made potable with a similar reverse-osmosis process used at Woodstock, bottled and trucked back to its source… to be purchased by the parents of Woodstock students.
It is hard to see the logic in this. We can aspire to rise above the marketing efforts of bottled water suppliers and commit to the small additional effort involved in refilling a reusable water bottle from the ample safe and healthy drinking water available. Daeun Lee, Class of 2020, has put together a compelling argument against the use of bottled water and single use plastics. You can, and should, read it here. When you actively listen to just the self-serving – let alone environmental – reasons to stop consuming bottled water, it’s a no-brainer.
I also want the chance to listen to you, our students’ parents. You entrust a great deal of your children’s education, upbringing and wellbeing to us, and I want to know what you think we’re doing well and any areas in which you’d like to see improvement. You’re always welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, but I’m also looking forward to meeting more of you in person. A few weeks ago, we invited you to join my wife Jamie and I at our home on the evening of Friday 15 November – the night before our annual Mela celebration. I’m delighted so many of you have already signed up, but there’s still room for a few more of you to join us. With limited places remaining, and to help us ensure we can cater for you, please email Arjun Puri, Director of Development, at email@example.com to let us know if you plan to attend. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to be able to listen to and learn from you and hear your experiences of Woodstock in person.
Dr Craig Cook, Principal