One of the key roles of leadership, and one which will rarely make it to the manuals issued for those on the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers, is the ability to make provision of possibility. Wendell Berry sometimes uses the phrase (one of my favourites) that such-and-such a thing is “hardly imaginable” or “not even imaginable”. The great attraction for me of the lecture that Paul Williams delivered at the LICC (referred to in posts here and here) in the summer, was his invocation of the power of imagination. Creation has to be imagined before it can become reality. The provision of possibility is what enlarges human culture and it stands directly in the way of a small-minded thinking that looks to external criteria for affirmation.
The providing of possibility does much for those who are following: it creates space to think and parameters to think within; it authorises or legitimises time in which to think and “play”; it encourages autonomy, experimentation and research; it renders allowable the possibility of failure; it transfers authority from the centre to the margins (in management parlance, it creates capacity); and it gives the tools for using what we have acquired or learnt, to create or develop what we have not acquired or learnt. Finally, it redefines success in terms of parameters that have been imagined together. Providing itself a strong creative impulse, it also democratises the creative process, leading to a greater depth of, in our case, craftsmanship.
Jesus did this all the time. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is full of this parameter-changing way of thinking, enlarging the possibility and range of what it might mean to love and serve his Father: “You have heard that it was said…..but I say to you….” is the key refrain of the sermon, having enlarged the possibilities of who was acceptable or who could come into the range of his Father’s love in the first 9 verses “Blessed are you who mourn….who hunger and thirst for righteousness….who are pure in heart” rather than “Blessed are you who are Jewish, or who keep the law, or who obey the teaching of Moses”. He was motivated more by the desire to see as many come into a living relationship with his Father, than he was by the requirements of the law, which he respected, but whose limited value he also understood. This further has the effect of creating space in unexpected places. When Jesus challenges us not to store up for ourselves treasure on earth, but store it up in heaven (where moth and rust do not decay), part of this is extending our imagination and understanding of the impact of what we do. The kindnesses, good work, worship and self-sacrifices we make on earth have an eternal impact, and storing them up on earth only is limiting the cultural space we have to play with, as well as rendering them corruptible by whatever moth or rust there is to corrupt.
This is the central challenge this year for me. How do I, as a school leader, begin to change the parameters of what is possible for us, and how do I inspire others to leave fear behind and do the same? This is not quite the same as “school improvement planning”; it is more rooted in the vision of what we want to become. School Improvement Plans tend by their very nature to be linear documents, often created with an eye to external demands (as ours, necessarily, is). The provision of possibility is a broad field where much may grow, where some things might die, but where new growth (like Jesus’ famous mustard seeds) has at least the possibility of shifting the focus of the eye, and perhaps, in the future, the focus of the entire school.