The following captures the thoughts of Dr Leoni Degenhardt on a range of career progression and development matters, as recorded during a question and answer session with Trak Search. It is targeted for leaders and aspiring leaders with the information best used in conjunction with discussions with a person’s manager/supervisor. Leoni’s biography is shown at the end of this interview.
People are often given advice to plan their career and map ahead for a number of years. Was your career planned and has it developed as you had it mapped out?
It was completely unplanned. When I left school there were certain subjects I loved studying and so to me it was natural to go to university and keep studying those things. There was no such thing as career advice in those days, so I thought that the only thing I could probably do was be a teacher, which is what led me to accepting a teaching studentship rather than a Commonwealth scholarship. So I sort of fell in to teaching by default. I don’t think I was a particularly good teacher in those early years because I think I was very focussed on my subject area. Then, after about 6 or 7 years, I started a family and was a full time Mum for the next 7 years. I think that experience of motherhood completely changed me because I actually became an educator rather than a teacher of subjects. So the person of the child became what I focussed on, through my own children.
How did that transition occur? Can you explain about you being more focussed on the subject content?
Yes. I was more focussed on the content than on the students themselves. That’s how I see it when I look back. Not every student I taught would agree with that because I still have some wonderful relationships with young people that I taught in those early days, but I’ve probably always been harsh on myself. There was a very significant shift within me to the actual wonder of seeing the development of a young person through being with my own two children in those early days. They say parenthood changes you. It changed me professionally as well as personally. I can remember in my DipEd year in university, when there was a straw vote taken asking people how long they thought they would stay in teaching. I remember thinking that I would be in a teaching career for no more than five years. I still remember that so clearly, because I thought what would happen is that I would marry – and we’re talking about the sociological issues here for young women – that I would marry, have children, then probably wouldn’t go back into the paid workforce again. Well in reality things were very different. When I left teaching to have my children I still thought then that I probably wouldn’t go back to teaching. But the experience of motherhood changed that.
I suppose the other element of being unplanned was that I was approached to lead an innovative program teaching foreign languages in feeder schools to a government high school in the south suburbs of Sydney when my children were very young, and that started a whole other cycle.
So was that at the very start of your career?
No. I originally started in Melbourne and we moved up to Sydney when our first child was 6 months old, for David’s work. So I was doing occasional bits of relief teaching in government schools around the southern suburbs, just keeping my hand in I suppose, but also having an identity other than just being somebody’s mum. In the course of doing that, someone spotted me and thought I’d be a good person to take on this new role, which was the primary languages program. So I was working in three primary feeder schools for Blakehurst High School. I really loved it but as with all government funding the plug got pulled and instead of expanding the number of schools, the program ceased to exist. So it was at this stage, with our younger child about to go into Year 1, that I thought it time to go back into the workforce and I had decided teaching was where I wanted to go.
What was also quite unplanned is that I hadn’t taught in a Catholic school before. Even though my background was Catholic, I’d had a fairly tumultuous relationship with the church in my young adult years and I didn’t imagine that I would ever teach in a Catholic school. I ended up applying for a position (that I didn’t get) in a small Catholic school for girls years 7 to 10. I so much enjoyed the interview, because of the authenticity and the shared values about learning, young people and life, that it actually started me on a different sort of a journey. So although I didn’t get the position I applied for, they rang me up and offered another position instead and asked if I would be prepared to accept it.
My relationship with the church at that stage was at an interesting point. It was actually me cajoling myself, saying ‘don’t be so bigoted’ and ‘you can’t judge something when you’ve never known it’. That led me to say ‘well I’ll see what it is like’ and so I started on a new path. But it was the experience of that first school, which was the St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Hurstville, (now Bethany College), and the trust of the principal at the time, Sister Jean-Marie, that changed my life in a whole lot of ways. I had made no bones about the fact of where I was in my own life journey. She took the risk on me anyway. It turned out to be a profoundly transforming experience for me personally in terms of my spiritual life.
Can I ask about another risk? From afar is would seem to have been a risk moving from a systemic principal role at Freeman to become the principal at Loreto Normanhurst. That might appear a risk that the Sisters took?
Well, they took a huge risk John. I didn’t apply for that position and I’d been a couple of years at Freeman and it was not easy, not an easy start at all, but I finally thought that I was starting to make some progress there. So I was very reluctant to leave. At first I said, thank you very much, I’m very honoured but I’m not interested. There were other things going on in our life as well. But I was prevailed upon to at least go and have a conversation and my heart got captured by the whole charism, ethos and the example of Mary Ward, even from that first interview. I made clear what my concerns were and I remember towards the end of this conversation – because I wasn’t going to be ‘interviewed’! – someone said to me, ‘what about the concerns you had before? Are they still there?’ It was almost as though someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me because I was just really engaged in talking about the things I’m passionate about, and had almost forgotten why I was there . It was a bit like the St. Mary’s experience. I replied, ‘yes they are still there’ and thought, where to from here? They did offer the position and I said thank you, but I’d need a week to think about it. This was a real discernment process which involved our children and David. It was a big decision but I have to say I’ve never regretted it.
Once again Leoni, this wasn’t planned.
Totally unplanned. I think if you want to give God a good belly laugh, you make really finely etched plans, because usually they don’t happen. With our own daughters who are now young adults and really making a mark in their respective fields, sometimes, as everybody does, they go through dark patches. It’s a question of saying ‘well we don’t know where it’s going at the moment but something will happen’.
We often find people that come up against a career roadblock, which at the time seems monumental and potentially career threatening. Have you faced this type of adversity in your career and if so what advice would you give to people when they’re at such a point?
Yes I’ve faced that situation a few times. In particular, quite a number of years ago, when working with a senior leader with whom I found it difficult to work and was wondering where on earth I would go from here. I was enjoying what I was doing but also feeling as though I was banging my head against a wall and not being able to see where I might go from there. From that position I applied for a couple of senior roles but didn’t get them. One position had 5 interactions and interviews, with the last meeting being with over 12 people. It was a huge process. I took it to the wire but didn’t get the position and I felt really flat at that stage. I took a while to come to terms with it, because it had been such a protracted process. I also think that you also don’t see what’s happening to you while you’re in it.
So what advice do you give to people who are in that place?
To essentially recognise that this is part of being in a dark tunnel, and it’s ok, because dark tunnels have light at the end of them eventually. You don’t know what track that will take, but you almost have to have gone through it a couple of times to be able to look back to see what the patterns are and that there are always options – there are always options. At the moment you’re in the dark tunnel it might seem as though none of the options are attractive and then that’s when you just have to sit and wait for something to emerge
Are you saying that you’re too close to it and you don’t recognise options?
I think so, or maybe those options aren’t there yet. I suppose it’s a lot in the spiritual tradition. We have St John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul.
You can look to the leadership literature, Peter Senge is behind a lot of this work, he and a number of colleagues. The U-theory model is that you start by gathering data, listening to people, learning about whatever. So if you’re in that dark place your questions would be, ‘what are the sort of options I could find? What could I do?’ So you’ve got a whole lot of logical data. Then you take it right down to the bottom with you, that really dark place where you can’t see yourself out of. You have to be in there with trust, and something will gradually present itself, there will be something that emerges into the realisation of new alternatives. So I guess a number of spiritual traditions would hold you, were you in that place. I think that’s personally what I’ve drawn on a lot, even though I might have banged my head against a wall and railed against things.
When you’re in a position where you’re not sure you should be, we often ask ourselves (sometimes out of frustration) ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this to myself?’ But then you really ask yourself the question, ‘why am I doing this?’ The answers that I would then come up with were really profound, growthful reasons for the community I was part of and for myself, then I’d say ‘ok, so it’s tough, let’s get on with it’.
We’ve talked about some of your moves. Would you be able to nominate a pivotal point in your career? A point that set you on the path to where you are now? Did you recognise it as pivotal at the time?
Yes I can think of one: a point that set me on the path of leadership as opposed to teaching. I talked to you about how I ended up teaching in a Catholic school. In that second year there, I was asked to be the Acting Head of English/Acting Head of Department and I really enjoyed that. There was an opportunity to gather the team around and get people together focussing on what we wanted to achieve for our students; in what we were doing in our department; and arranging and agreeing to certain processes and procedures that would make it easier for people to build on the work of other people; and to share their resources and ideas and so forth. I found it really exhilarating what we were able to do together in that year. So I suppose it was from that moment that I really got hooked on the potential of leadership and so it was clear to me even at the time.
When you say ‘the potential of leadership’. Many have written and I know Brother Kelvin for many years spoke about the fact that fewer people are putting up their hand for leadership roles. What are the fulfilling aspects of taking a leadership role, whether it’s as a coordinator, an AP or a principal?
I suppose different things motivate different people. For me it’s always been the potential for making a difference and particularly for young people. Although the last 14 years of my employed career was at Loreto, most of my teaching career has been in low socio-economic areas where, in some ways, you can see the potential for a difference more clearly. It doesn’t matter what sort of school you’re in, you can make a difference. If you’re in a very wealthy school, that school would imbue among the students of the school the sense of the common good and the awareness that they had been given privileges and advantages which they really, morally, need to be sharing with other people in the work that they do and the whole attitude they have towards life. So for me that has been the really engaging thing about leadership.
I should add that when I first took on that position at St. Mary’s Hurstville I thought I was set for life. A wonderful little school; beautiful community; working in a girls’ school; only years 7 to 10 -not even the challenge of HSC. I thought ‘I could stay here until I retire’. But things changed! This is another example of how you don’t necessarily plan things.
What has always spurred me on is the question ‘how can we do things better?’ How can we make a difference in the lives of, I suppose the world, but through the young people who you teach who are the citizens of the present, but especially the future.
When a person is considering a move into leadership they’re often concerned about the pressures associated with the position. What strategies did you use to cope with the pressures of leadership? What coping tactics did you use?
A number. The first relates to what I’ve just been describing: being really clear about why you are there. I think it was Viktor Frankl in his book ‘ Man’s Search for Meaning’, which describes his situation in a concentration camp in WW11.Basically, he said, if you have a big enough reason ‘why’ you can cope with any ‘how’. That’s essentially what will guide you and sustain you through challenging times and there’s absolutely no doubt there’s lots of challenging times. The more senior the leadership position you have, probably the more the challenges are multiplied.
It’s also important to devote time to prayer and to give yourself some space; enough space so that you can have that deep listening, which Aboriginal people refer to as ‘dadirri’. This is what we’ve called our home here, dadirri, ‘place of inner deep listening and quiet still awareness’. If you’re able to get some of that space (and it won’t necessarily be a huge amount of actual time) – but a small amount of time can actually grow to seem like a huge amount of time- if you can step away and step into that space. It then gives you your equilibrium and then you can ride on the fulcrum without tipping on either end of the seesaw. So that’s one way of coping with the pressures.
Another way is that I’ve always made a practice of going away for a retreat every year. The number of days would vary but I used to aim for 4 or 5 days simply to regain my perspective.
It also helps if you’re surrounded by people who you love and care about and who love and care about you. Not everybody who comes to these sorts of roles is married. I’m very fortunate in my husband and the support he’s always been to me, and my children as well. But also friendships, professional and semi-professional relationships are important too. I had for many years a sort of peer friendship with a fellow principal. Once a term we would go out for lunch together, usually in the term breaks. Those lunches could be 5 hours long and basically there was absolute trust between us so we could share anything we wanted, the highs and especially the lows, because people are happy to share the highs but sometimes less happy to share the lows.
Another aspect that I took advantage of and was very lucky to have was professional supervision. This started fairly late in my career but that was really helpful.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think for someone who’s in a senior leadership role you need lots of tent pegs around you – in people and particularly in values; and the sort of opportunities you give yourself to step away.
Earlier you mentioned ‘companioning’ and you’ve now talked about ‘professional supervision’. Should an aspiring leader look for a mentor, a companion or professional supervision? Should they look for all of those?
Maybe; and all of those are potentially really valuable. The professional supervision that I had came from an organisational psychologist, and I came upon this person by just asking. I can remember a retired Head once saying to me ‘if I was ever in that role again I’d make sure I got supervision’. I thought that could be really helpful, particularly on that organisational level because you can see that it’s mainly the people issues that are always going to be the challenging things. So I got advice on who I might find to be valuable and it worked well.
So how do you define professional supervision versus mentoring versus companioning?
Mentoring in my definition is somebody who is further down the life and career track than you are; someone whom you admire, with a generous attitude to life, and they will see part of their role is to support people who are coming behind them. So it becomes a mutual relationship that in some ways is unequal, but actually both give something to the other person. I see that with my own daughters, they have that type of relationship with a number of people in their respective professions. People who have seen they’ve got potential and have nurtured them and given them advice, and they’ve also sought that advice too. So I think mentoring is really good. If you can see someone who you admire and who you think is professionally and personally somebody who you would like to learn from, then that is what I would do. Just ask them. Just ask ‘would you be prepared to meet with me? Have a coffee with me? I admire what you do and I’d like to learn and I’d appreciate your advice.’
Professional supervision was something I offered to some of the senior people in my leadership team – particularly those who were front line with the people issues – and the supervision is usually with somebody with a strong psychology background. They might be a counsellor. In my case it was an organisational psychologist. That person can then help with the sort of issues you’re dealing with at the time and to put it in a framework. When you can put things in a framework and see what the levers are and what might be influencing factors then you’ve got more chance to see the patterns and work out how do deal with particular situations. It gives you that bit of distance with an intellectual framework. That doesn’t mean you intellectualise it, you’ve still got to deal with the issue and the people, but it can help you to gain some insight as to what might be happening within yourself and within other people. I guess part of the reading I did in my PhD helped me to understand that, particularly with change (and in my view leadership is about change) you can trigger a whole lot of projection. All of us are very much formed by what happens to us in our early years and, unwittingly, we can be throwing stuff at people because we are actually reliving some things that might still be unresolved within us. So it can help you understand what are the triggers in yourself that might be making the situation worse, and what you may not have to actually take full responsibility for, but you still have to manage. So that’s professional supervision.
Companioning is the sort of work I have been doing recently, and some people have sought me out for this. Others, after I’ve worked with them and their leadership team, have moved to a one-to-one companioning relationship. The first thing I say to them is I’m not a psychologist, but I have a lot of experience from being in the role; also the sort of approaches that I’ve had through my PhD studies; and the work that I do now. So the companioning is really providing a safe space for people where they can speak freely, perhaps in a way they can’t with family and shouldn’t in their own school community. So there’s a way of getting something out of your system but also linked to that is to then help people see what might be the patterns. Or with their strategic plans, helping them, not by giving them answers, but by asking questions: ‘what do you think would happen if you took plan A?’ ‘What do you think you might have to anticipate if that’s the way you want to go?’ ‘What is the potential implication of Path B and how would you deal with it?’ So it’s question of walking though and helping people to walk through and identify things that they might not have considered. And also there’s that element of pastoral care of the principal which usually involves a spiritual dimension, not overtly coming from me, but the best leaders know who they are, and if we’re going to be authentic human beings it’s going to be from a spiritual part of us.
How do aspiring leaders decide if they need a mentor or a peer; a companion or professional supervision?
They might want it all and there’s nothing wrong with that either. It would be great to have a colleague at your level you can trust and share what’s happening in your current role. A mentor is really somebody who is further along the track than you are so that would be a question of looking around, which implies you’ve actually not just got your focus on your own school environment. You actually won’t be a good teacher or leader if you can’t see beyond your immediate surroundings.
Other leaders have also mentioned this Leoni: the learning came when they got involved outside the boundaries of their own school, so the advice was for people to look for those opportunities. But how does a person get involved in this broader context?
You put your hand up! I’m thinking back to when I was in that first year at St Mary’s as acting Head of English. Towards the end of that year the Regional Office approached me about being seconded to be the Participation and Equity Program Advisor for the Southern region. So again unplanned. I was very honoured by that and also thought: what potential! The humbling thing was I felt how little I knew, but I was working with 7 schools and could observe 7 different school cultures and climates; and 7 different principals and see how they approached things. All were in fairly low socio-economic areas. It was an enormous opportunity to learn.
There are always opportunities within any school when volunteers will be called for. Or you might see an opportunity where something could be done. Instead of saying ‘they ought to do something about that’, you come up with a plan, then put it to your manager or supervisor and take the responsibility and run with it. You’ll find that most leaders would be thrilled with that. Thrilled that you’re actually contributing to the organisation, but you’re also learning enormously.
By looking for these opportunities you can get your vision widened. For example, when I was deputy chair of the Catholic Secondary Schools Association it absolutely broadened my vision and stretched me. Sometimes the stretching is not always comfortable but you look for how you can make a difference. By being a part of this or that – will it help to make a difference? That is the bottom line.
What about people in rural and regional areas where they may not have the opportunities of their metropolitan colleagues. What advice would you give them in terms of looking for opportunities to broaden their experience?
I can empathise with that. My first year was spent in a rural school in Victoria and you could feel quite alone, but nowadays with technology it’s much easier. Through the internet, there are all sorts of opportunities where people can be interacting without having to physically meet. But the challenges of being remote are very real. I’ve done some work with the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese for example, with the primary principals (they don’t have a secondary systemic school in the diocese) and working with their principals on a few occasions. Amazing. These people, men & women, are travelling enormous distances but they came together, with obviously the support of their Director, to work together to have some sort of external stimulus and to interact.
There are always opportunities to broaden, including reading and professional memberships, professional associations, they keep you really expanded.
What are you reading at the moment?
I always read quite a large number of books at any one time. At the moment I’m reading The World Café: Shaping Our Futures though Conversations that Matter, which is a good book for enabling the voices of people to really come through and determine outcomes. I’m reading Joan Chittister’s The Cry of the Prophet. I’m reading Simon Winchester’s Sphere because I like his ‘who done it’ stuff. I’m reading Provocations, the spiritual writings of Soren Kierkegaard, which is not exactly light reading. There’s one I’ve been reading for a while and it’s called The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. He’s a military man and he did a doctorate on this. It’s about modern warfare and the fact that we need to use different methods, more people based methods, in warfare in the 21 century – old ways of warfare don’t work any more.
Can you name one book would you would recommend to aspiring leaders?
I would recommend Jim Collins’ Good to Great, which is about what makes organisations outstanding. He and his research team identify a set of key characteristics which separate out the really outstanding companies from those that are just good. There’s one chapter in that about leadership which refers to ‘level 5’ leadership. This is a combination of 2 aspects: personal humility and fierce professional resolve. So the question is what are we here for and what are we going to do? Whilst being compassionate, in some ways it’s a ‘take no prisoners’ approach in terms of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
That can apply to a school situation as well, because sometimes I think we haven’t been tough enough on what we expect of teachers – in some ways we’re too tough – but for example, if there’s a really, really inadequate teacher, that is a justice issue. That is a real justice issue. Why are we here? We’re here for the kids! I think we’re getting better at that as a profession, of challenging appropriately.
Many organisations appear to create tensions due to the acceptance of performance which is unsatisfactory as an outcome of their notion of pastoral care for the person. How do you appropriately challenge this?
It is a dilemma because you also need to, and would want to, be caring for your staff and I think the way to do that, respectfully, is to give appropriate feedback. But the feedback needs to be based on evidence. You can’t just say ‘look I think you’re doing a bad job’. On what do you base that opinion? You could say it is professional intuition but you need more than that.
You need to be honest with the person to say ‘this is what I’m concerned about – X, Y and Z. What support can I give you in order for you to improve that situation?’ So you start with honesty and the desire to support and therefore there needs to be regular checking in of progress. But there comes a point with some people – some people can manage to raise the bar and never look back – but for some other people, they can’t or won’t do that. Then it becomes a moral responsibility as a leader to take some action. Again in a pastoral way, but that person can’t be allowed to carry on. That’s where that fierce professional resolve comes in.
So a leader needs to address the issue and not pass it off on the basis of caring for that person, because others are suffering as a result?
That’s right and I think most people who are not performing well enough, in their deepest heart of heart, they probably know it. There would be some that don’t, but most would. I suspect it could be a relief when their manager says to them ‘look I’m concerned about such and such. I’m concerned for you and I’m concerned about what’s happening and we need to address this together.’ Then it’s all out in the open and you don’t have to try and hide something.
So Good to Great I found to be a really good book, particularly that chapter on level 5 leadership. Another is Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. I’d also recommend Crucial Conversations which is really about how to address difficult issues with people in a respectful way – a way which respects them and respects the situation.
There’s also many good websites that you can get ideas from. Some of the ones that I frequent, the ASCD (The Association for Curriculum and Supervision), an American site. The ACEL site is excellent. There is also good information on the website of Principals Australia (which used to be called APAPDC), is a cross-sectoral group. I also often refer to Eureka Street which is a digital publication by the Jesuits, available online. .
With so much information and so many sources, is it an issue refining the information you want access to?
Exactly. I know technology can be a curse in some ways, but it’s also such a blessing. No matter where you are, you can access information. I think that’s the way forward and that’s what’s happening in the best classrooms. The classroom becomes actually a hub from which kids can go and explore and the teacher becomes the grounding point, the wisdom figure.
Early on there were great fears within the teaching profession about the role of technology and whether it would usurp the teacher’s role. It appears however that the teacher’s role has never been more important.
I couldn’t agree more! There’s that throwaway line that if a teacher is afraid they are going to be replaced by a computer, they probably deserve to be. A teacher and a leader (and a teacher is a leader in their own right) is a mediating point between the external context and their organisation or their class or individual students. Now there is so much – there are no walls anymore – so more than ever it’s important for the teacher to be the one who helps kids to use critical analysis; to be able to use digital technology, not slavishly but for their own ends; and to manipulate that, to create something new with it rather than the old days of cut and paste. So there’s no limit to what can happen.
Coming back to leadership: Robert Greenleaf, author of the book Servant Leadership describes a leader’s role as being somewhat schizoid. That really appealed to me because I often used to think that myself. You’ve got to have one foot on top of the mountain and be surveying the context all the time, because as the leader your role is to lead your organisation into the emerging future. If you stay put, you’re automatically going backwards. So one foot is up there supporting you while you do your environmental scanning all the time. Not just locally, but nationally and globally. The other foot has to be at the bottom of the mountain, among the people, immersed in their reality too. If I were asked to identify two core aspects that define leadership it would be direction and influence. They’re your two feet.
A leader needs both: to lead the direction of the organisation – from the top of the mountain; and with people being prepared to work with you – from the bottom up. You need both. If you’re just in and among the troops you’ll be popular, but you won’t be going anywhere.
So how does an aspiring leader learn to do this? For example, how do they start on that path of developing this environmental scanning skill? Is it small steps?
I think it is a question of being in touch with yourself and what you think is most needed to make the world a better place – in really big terms – but that’s a very expansive view. But starting with your own immediate sphere of influence, which might be your classroom if you’re a teacher. If you’re head of a department, it would be by asking: how can we help kids to learn better in this particular subject area and what are the skills that they need beyond this subject area? I think the schooling system is still far too much defined by subjects rather than by the sort of skills and awareness that young people need.
So how do we make it better? The leader has to be the person who asks those provocative questions, first of self and then sharing them with others. At the same time, the leader has to listen to what other people think and what they think the direction should be and what their reality is. But it is also a dilemma, because if you do too much listening you’ll never move. There comes a point where you’ve almost got to gird your loins and say ‘right, we’ve done all these processes and now this is where we’re going’. You’ll have people who will be unhappy because it’s uncomfortable and it’s more comfortable to stay with where they know and with what is familiar. But essentially you’re betraying your mission if you allow yourself to be seduced into that, it’s very seductive.
When looking at the history of Loreto Normanhurst, you and the school went through significant change and took a very significant risk in the directions taken. Can you step us through why you took this risk?
When I first came to Loreto in 1994 one of the first things I did, within a month or so of being there, was to launch a strategic process, a strategic review. This involved ex-students, the Sisters, our School Council, teachers and all other staff, students and parents in discerning: where do we want to go? and developing a school mission statement. There were many processes -of listening and sharing stories.
At the first staff meeting I had when I came to the school I shared with people what they could expect from me and what I would expect from them. Then I just asked questions and looked for comment. So I just wanted to put it out there. I also said in that first meeting that I would want to listen to every person on a one-to-one basis and I wasn’t interested in going back over anything that went wrong, but rather what did they most love about the school and would always want to see preserved; and what ideas did they have for how we could make it an even better school. That was just so illuminating. That helped me a) learn the culture and b) to have a sense of their really good ideas. The eventual outcome was the strategic plan 1994 to 1999 and although we did have somebody to walk with us as a process person, it was pretty basic. It was my first go at it as well.
In 1999 I said to the leadership team that we needed another strategic process and I suggested two criteria. One, that it needed to be a simple process, and two, it needed to be not time bound, but an ongoing, evolving strategy. To be frank, I had no idea where that was going to take us. One of the things we set up was the strategy team. That team was large and it included an external consultant who was very good and came from the corporate sector. The strategy team was much bigger than he wanted, but I wanted wide representation and people voted members onto the team as their representative from all the various groups. Also I asked the School Council to agree, ahead of time, that they would endorse the plan the team came up with. I was so grateful that they agreed. This required huge, huge trust from them, but it also gave authenticity and responsibility to the process.
The strategy team knew that they had ‘teeth’ and they would be endorsed and anyone in the school community could see that there was someone on that group who was reflecting their viewpoint, as a group, and also responsible for communicating back to them. There was a time, fairly early on during one of the strategy team meetings, where I had this incredible awareness of what this would mean for me personally as the leader…… and I was terrified.
What do you mean?
I could see the amount of change that it implied in a school that had been fairly conservative for a long time. I knew what that would mean for the leader, both in terms of guiding that process through and the sort of reaction I was likely to get, because you, as the leader, have to take the ultimate responsibility. It might be a strategy team that comes up with it, but you’re the person out the front.
It sounds like you were in one of those dark places at that point?
It was sort of like an epiphany I suppose, although not a particularly happy epiphany. But I’m really glad it happened because then I was deliberately doing what I did and probably until the day I die that will be one of the most moral decisions I’ve ever made. As any leader knows, it’s very easy to subtly derail something and for all sorts of extremely good reasons; there will always be compelling common sense reasons why something shouldn’t happen; and it would have been very easy to talk it away without looking as though I had. And I knew all this – I was sitting there! It was at that moment, sitting around that table, that I thought ‘no, if I’m really who want to be, I have to take this plunge’.
There’s another book that’s really good, extraordinary, Hedley Beare’s Leadership for a New Millennium. Hedley speaks about leadership as an odyssey and he goes back to mythology. Jason, for example, set out on his quest having no idea if they’d ever return and believing that they could end up falling off the end of the Earth. That’s what Hedley said leadership needs to do. You need to be so clear on the direction that you’re going, but you haven’t a clue whether you, personally, will get there. There are lots of Dark Nights of the Soul in that process.
More commentators are saying that leaders need to take risks, measured risks, and be innovative and creative around that. Isn’t that what happened at Loreto?
From half way through 2001 we took 2.5 years before we launched into the implementation. There were lots of teams and committees, all building on each other’s work. Then there were were cries of alarm – ‘it’s too soon’. But there is a point – you’re never going to be ready – a certain point to have to take the plunge and learn from what doesn’t go well as well as what does.
I think it was Michael Fullan who spoke about the implementation dip in anything that’s new. For us, in 2004, that implementation dip came about 4 weeks into the new school year, the first year of implementation. It was as though all the wheels were falling off and it was terrifying. Again you can’t plan these things: it was very, very rare for me to have a weekend free from school commitments, but I actually had a weekend free and was able to get away and just walk on the beach. It was a really prayerful time, but a prayer of almost desperation. I had no idea what I was going to do and just prayed ‘help me’. I came back to school strangely calm with a very clear way forward.
What I hadn’t done is connect the two realities. I was also doing a PhD process designed to make sure that what we were doing was really solidly underpinned and would also pay tribute to the work of all the people risking this together. It wasn’t just me. It was all of us taking this risk together. What really surprised and shocked me was that there was the odd voice saying ‘we’re only doing this so you can do your PhD’. As if anyone would ever do that! I was really quite winded by that and thought I’ve just got to move on.
I came back after that weekend and called all the staff together and said I’ve some things I want to share with you: we’re having some difficulties at the moment with the new model and this is quite predictable. If you look in the literature it talks about implementation dips and it’s ok. We’ve done a lot of foundational work and we know the direction we’re going in is ultimately right. But it’s tough. So what I’m going to do is two things. First, I won’t stop my PhD studies but I’m going to scale back (and hopefully that would lead people to believe that that’s not my primary motivation). The second thing I’m going to do is create a new position called Year 7 Team Director and I’m going to fill that position myself. I didn’t know it at the time but discovered later, that the literature talks about in times of the turmoil, of major change, that sometimes you need to have somebody, a fairly influential figure, to act like a hub connecting the spokes. So we had the Year 7 Team Leader, the Heads of Department, House Co-ordinators and the Leadership Team and all these people had really risked so much. So I became one of them and was able to make those necessary connections.
There was a risk in that because you’re also the employer, and so it was not designed to be a permanent appointment of myself to another role, but just to get us through those early stages and it was good. I would be there with them, not as the leader, but as a part of the team when we did the debriefing, the team meetings and planning. I was also involved on the floor with the kids. We got through it.
When someone is first appointed to a leadership role it can be a vulnerable time. What would you suggest as the key priorities of a newly appointed leader?
It’s going to change and be different according to the context. If you’re coming in as a leader of a school that’s been facing difficulties, in some ways it’s easier because people will be so much looking to you for leadership. If you’re coming into a place that’s already performing well, that can be a challenge. If you’re coming in to a place where internal applicants have sought the position, it can be very tough. In this last instance it’s a question of trying to establish a relationship, which may or may not be possible, with the person or people who are disappointed.
So how do you go about building those relationships, for example with people who had been disappointed? What practical advice would you give to a new appointee who has moved in to a new school about building those relationships?
I’d start with my leadership team, and it’s more listening. I’d invite them to give their perspective on the situation. If it’s somebody who was disappointed I’d probably say, ‘I’m aware you’ve also applied for the position and you will have been disappointed. How can we work together?’ I’d also say ‘people are going to be watching to see how we can work together. They’ll probably be looking to see if I can embrace the past and to you to see if you can embrace the future, so we have a bigger responsibility to make it work.’ Other things I would do would be to get the measure of the community and the context in which it sits. So listening to key parents; and your PA – an invaluable person. I always used to ask my PA to be another set of eyes and ears for me. Sometimes people will let the PA know something when they might not feel comfortable to tell you, but they want you to know. Not that the PA is a spy but it is a pastoral matter, because you can’t be everywhere. Also, encouraging staff and kids to be able to get to know you and let you know about their lives and their issues, having mechanisms for listening to the voice of staff and students.
What types of mechanisms for students?
One of the things I loved to do was to teach a class. Deliberately, I used to teach a year 7 class. Then I would know those kids all the way through school, for 6 years. It was also a way of modelling what I believe: that there is no hierarchy; because you teach year 12 you’re not a better teacher than if you teach year 7.
With the integrated learning model, the FACE curriculum, it is much easier because you can be all around the place. You can pull up a chair and ask ‘What are you working on? Why are you doing that? How did you do that?’ You can learn from kids, especially with technology. But with year 12 I used to have something called ‘morning tea with Mrs D’. I’d have maybe 8 or 10 Year 12 kids in a special parlour area and we’d have a proper morning tea. Basically there was no agenda, no questions other than just ‘what has been happening?’ With some of those groups we got into the most profound discussions, like how do you cope with the difference between the sort of value space you have here at school and the reality of life when you go to parties on a Saturday night? So … just listening to kids and helping them to frame their own questions.
How did you get this breakthrough? I’m trying to imagine a year 12 being invited to the principal’s office for morning tea! Were they on edge and careful with what was said? Obviously you had built trust?
That’s why it was important that we weren’t in my office. Some kids were very quiet but as this became more of an institution I think the trust grew. Mind you, there would still be some who would be quite cynical. But I’m still in touch with some of these kids, some ex-students who contact me by email or come and visit, which is really lovely. These were authentic meetings – we never knew what was going to happen. Sometimes it wasn’t much. I’d always had to check if they had an assessment task the next period because they went on much longer than was planned, but this was the one chance I might have with that particular small group of kids.
So a new leader or principal in a school needs to look for some mechanisms to connect and teaching a class is one way?
Yes, but as the years went by I saw that I was actually doing a disservice to my class because you can’t always be in the school when your class is on, so this is where the integrated learning model is brilliant. It gets away from that concept of one teacher, one class and one door that’s closed. Teaching is really a public activity.
What about the mechanisms or practices for building morale within your own staff team. Drawing on your experience at Loreto, how did you do this?
There was good morale in the leadership team – a great group of people. One of the things I think was helpful was the establishment of the Evaluation Committee which started from the beginning of 2004, the first year of implementation of the Loreto Normanhurst Student Growth Model. Again it had elected members and it was a standing group. Its purpose was to monitor and evaluate the model and devise ways of doing that. The first year was really cumbersome, but it got better.
We asked ‘what sort of evidence would we need to look for to know if we’re actually achieving what we want to achieve?’ So it’s like backward mapping – where do we want to go; how will we know if we’ve achieved it; what do we do to get there? So, being really clear what we’re on about, which the strategy processes had helped us to do. Then, what are we going to have to start collecting now, from the beginning of the year, to know if it’s made a difference in Faith, in Academic areas, in Community and Extra-curricula, (the FACE curriculum). For example, we used the Gatehouse Project, an external instrument, which measures school climate from the student perspective. We worked with ACER and their values framework and therefore we had a population base of tens of thousands of others to compare what was happening inside the school, as well as collecting data internally.
How did this impact morale?
It was supportive of building morale because it was designed to be transparent. Teachers can be quite sceptical, particularly secondary teachers, and they sometimes suspect other motives of people, particularly their leaders. This was designed to say ‘we have to do this together and evaluate it together’.
What skills have you found to be most useful is your career?
………………Probably……….. my vision. Being able to see things and come up with ways in which things could be better, but it also gets me in a lot of trouble. I’d also add the skill of listening.
Is the skill of ‘vision’ able to be developed by people?
I think it’s probably an innate characteristic which I’ve fostered, but I think you can develop that, because the corollary is you have somebody who is really on board with the details. That’s my weakness. This is why, to get the best out of me, I know I need to be working with people with complementary skills.
Can the skill of listening be developed?
Yes, very easily. Mind you I’m always aware that there would be people who I’ve worked with across the years who would say I didn’t listen, and they could well be right. There will be times when I haven’t listened well enough. Generally however I think that’s one of my core skills: to really be there with people. This is a skill which people can develop.
If you had your time over again and there was one skill you would work at developing, what would that be?
The ability to quickly grasp all the implications of a particular set of circumstances. Some people do that really well. You can present them with a situation and they can see the whole picture. I’m better at this than I used to be. It’s a question of trying to get rid of your blind spots and seeing as many of the parameters as possible for a given set of circumstances in a really short space of time.
Is this where the mentor can come in?
Yes and so can the listening. When you’re listening you think ‘I never thought of that’; you’ll find things you have never thought of and everyone ends up with a more rounded picture.
You’ve shared a lot of information about different books and websites. Are there professional development activities that you would encourage aspiring leaders to explore?
First would be to join an appropriate professional association or two. If you are interested in leadership, if you’re an aspiring leader, I would recommend ACEL.
It would be reading as widely as possible. Sometimes it alarms me a little that not enough aspiring leaders actually read enough professional literature. It is not hard to do that because you can get potted versions of things, especially through a professional association. It’s really important to keep abreast of your profession and to keep abreast with what’s happening in the world.
Other professional development such as conferences can be great, provided you choose selectively and you have the right sort of attitude in going to them. Even better if you can submit a paper because then you’re contributing to the professional community as well. Another professional development activity would be mentoring.
I don’t think we can underestimate formal study, for example to do a Masters. You need a death wish to do a PhD, no I don’t really mean that! A PhD is really gruelling and it will change you and change the way you analyse things and see things, having gone through the rigour of it. But I am so very glad I did it. I grew so much through the experience.
You’ve mentioned about going on retreats. What advice would you give people about the development of their spiritual self?
To have a prayerful place, which might be a physical place or it might be going for a walk for 10 minutes. If you’re leading a busy life it can be really hard to find that, but just to take time out to be still and to breathe is important; to find some quiet, listening space and allow for reflection.
I would really suggest that people, if their partner is willing to allow it, to take a couple of days; go away for a weekend. Just recently I was at Douglas Park for example, on a weekend retreat called Sheer Silence and it was just wonderful.
Have an involvement in Parish life, because being part of a worshipping community is really important; the literature says that, as does my own lived experience. Particularly in a Catholic community, because part of the theology that separates Catholic from Protestant Christianity is that belief that we are a community and it’s as a community that we find our way to God. For some people their own Parish community is not very sustaining and so it becomes a question of finding one that is, or finding a spiritual community. For example we often go up to Jamberoo Abbey. Jamberoo gives a sense of a really deep, nurturing, nourishing experience and has fantastic homilies which make you think.
I suppose I’m emphasising that contemplative stuff rather than being part of your Parish and being on a committee – that’s important too – but if you’re talking about spiritual life it’s how you nurture your innermost self that’s going to be important, and that’s not necessarily through what you do, as much as what you don’t do.
What do you think is the most significant challenge facing our students today?
Finding meaning. There are so many options available today because young people live in a global community rather than a local neighbourhood. In earlier generations, including my own, we grew up knowing what your family’s values were; what your immediate broader family values were; what the school’s values were; and the local community. These days everything is much more relativistic and I think that’s a challenge for young people – what’s the meaning in life for me and finding my own way towards reaching that? That’s where I think schools and especially faith-based schools s have such a profound impact. They might not end up translating every student into a seat on a pew at the weekend, but there are other questions you’ve got to ask about that too. But that sense of nurturing the spiritual and having a sense of what’s important in life; what is my life about. To first of all ask the big questions and then support them as they try to answer these questions. That’s the biggest challenge for many people. A purely materialistic culture, which is what we live in, and very secular…………it is hollow and shallow. Even though young people might not use these words, that’s what I suspect they experience.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received that you could share with others?
Probably it would be around not trying too hard. I’d want to share this with other women, and particularly eldest born. I think there are certain things that come into play where you feel you have to do your best and you have a sense of responsibility. You can end up taking responsibility for everything. I suppose a while back I started to learn to just relax and be carried. So then it becomes a whole lot easier because you’re not just paddling, you’re also letting the current take you. Women , particularly women leaders, can sometimes find that difficult. There’s a whole lot of literature around leadership of women and if it’s a woman aspiring leader I would really encourage them to delve into the literature. To not be too harsh on themselves is the advice.
‘Going more with the current rather than doing the paddling’ – what does that look like in the way the person operates?
From my time as principal (and I’ve heard that other principals have had similar sort of experience), when there are leadership opportunities available within your school, often a man will ‘have a go’ and might not have all the requirements that really are needed for that position. But they have a go anyway, because what’s to lose and you can learn something in the process. Not enough women do that. They tend to wait until they’re 110% qualified before they’ll even try. That would be true of me in the past as well. It has happened to me numerous times across my career where people have encouraged me to apply for things, or offered me opportunities, which I haven’t always thought to take myself. So the advice, particularly for women, would be ‘have a go’. What’s the worst that could happen? You don’t get it, but you learn something along the way. So I’d encourage women to not wait until everything is perfect and they’ve every i dotted and t crossed.
About Dr Leoni Degenhardt
Dr Leoni Degenhardt has taught in government and non-government schools in rural, urban and suburban areas; held regional and head office positions in the Catholic Education Office, Sydney; was deputy principal of a highly multi-cultural inner-city Sydney school and principal of a large co-educational Catholic systemic school in the south-west of Sydney, before her appointment as the first lay principal of Loreto Normanhurst, a position she held from 1994 until April 2008.
Loreto Normanhurst was awarded a prestigious National Quality Schooling Award in 2006 for its work of reinventing schooling to meet the needs of its students in the 21st century. Leoni’s PhD in Educational Leadership, awarded in 2006, was based on the documentation and analysis of this reinvention process in her own school. The story of her principalship is included in Leading Australia’s Schools, a book which ‘records the leadership contributions that 17 extraordinary principals have made to their schools and school communities’ (Duignan & Gurr, 2007).
Leoni has been a member of a range of educational boards, commissions and committees, including the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) and the National Standing Committee of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA). She is currently a member of the National Council of Caritas Australia. Leoni is a Fellow of both the Australian College of Educators (ACE) and the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), and an Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.
After leaving principalship, Leoni established her own education consultancy business, Degenhardt Consulting through which she worked with schools, systems and other organisations in areas related to 21st century learning, leadership, strategy and organisational change. She was also a Senior Consultant with Zaffyre International a strategic leadership and corporate transformation consultancy practice, working with senior leaders in the corporate sector. In October 2011 she took up the position of inaugural Dean of the AIS Leadership Centre at The Association of Independent Schools of NSW.
Leoni’s book Dancing on a Shifting Carpet: reinventing traditional schooling for the 21st century was published by ACER Press in March 2010 and was the ACEL Book of the Month in February 2010. Co-written with Professor Patrick Duignan, it is based on her PhD study and includes an extended case study of the reinvention of Loreto Normanhurst.
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