The Gentle Art of Herding Cats

3 Mar 2020 | by Anne Slade

I have recently been reflecting on my leadership skills, and how effective they are in my role as a Chief Finance & Operating Officer within a medium sized Education Trust (MAT). 

I naturally took to Google (other search engines are available) to research how I could improve my skills and happened upon this – Notes on the Gentle Art of Herding Cats, which has really resonated with me.

None of us like to think that we are being done to; we all want to feel that we are listened to, to make our own decisions, to do our own thing. In some roles this works really well but not in a school or academy context when compliance is at the forefront of our minds, we are so heavily scrutinised and there are so many procedures and processes to be followed. Working for an Education Trust that supports vulnerable schools means that sometimes a commanding leadership style is required to ensure immediate compliance; quite often it is not just the teaching and learning that needs support but back office and premises functions as well. However, this type of leadership is only appropriate to deal with an immediate crisis when, like the cats, the staff understand that they sometimes need to be herded.

A more appropriate, long-term leadership style is one that is a mixture of visionary, affiliative, democratic and coaching [Goleman, Daniel. “Leadership that gets results.” Harvard Business Review. 2000]. Allowing cats to buy into the reason for the herding and to be mobilised towards a shared vision provides the reward of developing everyone.

This hasn’t always come naturally for myself as a leader and I know that when the chips are down, I would naturally fall back on a commanding, pacesetting leadership which is task driven and calculated to ‘get the job done’ but can lead to the negative consequences of harsh herding, and this is what has led me to reflect on how I can be a more intuitive leader, responding to the individual needs of the schools that I support in the most beneficial way.

With that in mind, I attended the ISBL London Regional Conference in February where one of the keynote speakers spoke about the importance of professional dialogue and recommended a book by Daniel Goleman entitled ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.’ In this Goleman refers to five key elements:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social Skills

Still reflecting on herding cats, I think you can take each of these key elements and see how they relate:

Self-awareness – we understand that sometimes we need to be herded, and are aware that we all need herding, some time or another (but we don’t like to be reminded of this)

Self-regulation – we prefer to herd ourselves

Motivation – we don’t like to be herded and harsh herding has negative consequences

Empathy / Social skills – herding gently, but firmly, with affection (or fish) as a reward has the greatest effect

This has, in turn, led me to consider my emotional intelligence and what I need to do to build this so that I can be more attune and manage both my own and other’s emotions. I have spent some of my coaching sessions further reflecting on this and coming up with some strategies. I need to spend more time just getting to know my teams; what motivates/demotivates them, what are their passions and concerns, and how can I use this information to develop a more collaborative, coaching leadership approach. 

In developing greater emotional intelligence, I also need to deepen my effective listening skills and ensure that the messages I communicate are understood. One of my favourite quotes is from Robert McCloskey, US State Department Spokesman about the Vietnam War:

Finally, how do we celebrate the successes? In the midst of the busyness of school life, balancing the budgets, ensuring compliance in health & safety, GDPR, safeguarding etc. etc. do we ever pause to celebrate what we are doing well?

It’s a lot to ponder on…