Developing School Culture

Creating an environment of Joy & Performance

– thoughts from 2 days with Brendan Spillane

After spending 2 days listening to the messages of Brendan Spillane I was reminded of why I regard myself as a passionate educator. I am an idealist, a dreamer, a deep believer in people.

Brendan says, “Love makes us bigger” I believe that. If you love what you do, you will be ‘BIG’ at it. At LNNZ we are ‘BIG’ at what we do. We have to be. We are the sum of four and want to exist with a strong why. A why is deeply personal, however the development of a shared why can be reaffirming and truly expose the differences within that make us strong.  There’s a need for it to be complexly simple, a deep and powerful reason to exist, but framed in a simple enough format that it can be represented in 140 characters. Brendan challenged teams to construct their vision as a tweet.
MY ‘Why we exist’ TWEET:

“We exist because we believe education should be more. We provide opportunities for educators to be the best they can be, to grow great kids!”

The complexity of our working environment, of the world today means we HAVE to be leaders when embracing the new paradigms of learning & teaching. We HAVE to work above ‘the magic line’.

When our thinking is “Above the Line” then Ownership, Acceptance, Responsibility are embraced. Below: Blame, Excuses & Denial prevail. How do we build a culture where enough Trust, Respect & Joy exist so those inside it are free to work above the line?

Leaders need to tell the people working ‘above the line’ they model a great attitude. Have you told the people you work with they live ‘above the line’? Have you asked yourself why others work ‘below the line’? Have you tried to find their joy? Have they? What could the behaviour be masking? All key questions I’ve pondered this week, writing this blog. Easy to ask, difficult to answer, even harder to live by some days.

Without Joy in the role 'above the line' thinking will not manifest.

What gives us Joy is easy. Generally it comes as an inherent gift, manifested early in life. Sometimes it is blinkered but others recognise it in you. Brendan encourages you to identify yours as a team – play a game of warm fuzzies. But know what each team member brings that gives or replenishes joy. I remember doing this with one team when a teacher who thought she was nothing special had the rest of the team telling her that without her compassion they would be a very different team. She was always caring for the ones in real need. Brendan told us about a teacher with a similar response whose colleagues said she was great at listening without judging. It can be an uplifting and revealing task.

Know what gives you joy.

Find it.

Or keep looking... because...

Brendan goes on to share the belief that: “Everything depends on how physically well you are!”

Seriously! If you are physically unwell nothing functions at its optimum. And day-in, day-out mental torture to the point of exhaustion in order to manage your way through work life is not generally conducive to great physical well-being. Add that to the mental exhaustion already manifested in a school leaders’ role and the recipe can be difficult to manage. Leadership in schools is mentally demanding. The experts agree the only escape from a mentally demanding job (this means the only way to find necessary Joy and ensure resilience!) is to have a complete brain break from anything educational. Anything 'work-related. How many principals or school leaders do you know who do that? Those that do stand out, they build strength from the right drivers. They ensure others find their joy and by association – success.

So what’s important? And how do we determine those things for the institution within which we work? The why is important! The determiners are the what, driven by the why! I share strong conversations around the WHY with colleagues. And why the WHY is all important to get right. Not so much right as truly identified with honesty and humility. The why is your Vision. It’s why you exist. It’s shared. Brendan says, “a vision that isn't shared is a hallucination!” Hallucinations can often mask as beautiful day dreams, however the concept remains the same. Neither are real and can only be brought to life if shared, actioned and open.

The first thing any intelligent leader today can do in order to bring vision to life is:

Increase the QUANTITY of power. Our times require the ‘genius of the group’.

‘Open hand’ leadership as opposed to leadership that is a closed fist makes a difference. An open hand signifies support and an, ‘I've let go, so you can fly on your own but I'm still here to help if you need me.’ It allows risk-taking and leading not only from the middle but across all roles, leadership that is more about the best fit for the skills needed to get a job done.

Outcomes are the result of establishing an understanding of why we do what we do. Top down mandated change and closed fist leadership, by definition, means lack of ownership, higher staff turnover, more ‘below the line’ behaviour. This results in less sustainability and/or continuity of implemented change.

What’s your leadership default setting?

To increase the quantity of power in the work place
Brendan suggests the ‘round the campfire’ metaphor:

In order to create an environment of
Joy & Performance:

·         Build narrative intelligence – tell your stories
·         Do this with purpose, “Sit around the campfire”
      Adapted from Lencioni, 2012
·         Ask the 6 questions of organisational Clarity

Once a shared understanding of why the things that are important are important, successful design and implementation becomes the foundation of school strategic direction and gives life to the annual operational goals staff identify. Visible success determined by how well the team engages in a cycle of action learning.

Brendan’s messages are simple, though not to easy to put into practice and he is highly engaging. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the learning over the two days as did everyone who attended. He made us think a lot. I have been made aware through feedback that this post could be 3 and maybe I'll work on unpacking the three big ideas I took away from the time with Brendan in more depth.

Throughout, Brendan reiterates:

“Be KIND!”

“Be true to your season. Stand in front of people with heart and offer things of worth. Work with humility, mindful of the wisdom of others.”

“Be honest!” If you say it – Mean it! If you mean it – prove it! If it’s important, how do we/others see it?

I end with some of the humorous images Brendan used to prove this point.

How we see and perceive ourselves and the messages we send need to be viewed from many levels.

How do your people see you?:


But inside others see a raging bull?


others feel they need to tell you how incredible you are with frequency.


they don’t feel they can ever find you


the last person seen to take a risk round here ended up in your jaws....
All images from


Food for thought.

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