Clever Questions - What can I control?
I still remember it clearly. It was as if time and the everyone in the room stood frozen. I could feel my blood pressure dropping and a sense that absolutely everything was being flushed away from me and there was in that moment absolutely nothing I could do. I was a headteacher and this moment in time, was during an Ofsted inspection in March 2017, when an inspector said that there was missing reference paperwork and therefore the school would be failed in its inspection. It was in complete contrast to a conversation that had been held with the same inspector not 30 minutes before where he had said how impressive things were looking. Maybe it was the contrast that accentuated the feeling of losing control?
As the inspector left the room, I searched for every feasible way to rescue the situation. It’s a natural response to want to rescue it. It didn’t take long to realise that nothing was going to turn this situation around and to get the ‘good’ that the school deserved. And strangely, in that moment of realisation that the battle was lost came a weird sense of peace. A peace that comes when you realise that you have to let go of the fight to control the uncontrollable. And in that moment, the control came back. I can’t control the uncontrollable and so my focus turns now to the elements that I can control.
In that moment, I chose to control how I behaved and how I responded. I chose to do the best that I could for my staff, to encourage and support them. I chose to act with integrity. I chose not to scapegoat others. I chose to prepare myself for the inevitable and contrasting response of the academy trust. I had entered a worst nightmare and although I could not control the monsters or the final scene, I could control how I acted.
Maybe this blog should have started with a health warning, as stories of leadership like this can cause worry amongst us all. Simple errors and a series of unfortunate events that cause a downfall. Fortunately, it is not an everyday occurrence that as a leader you experience the feeling that everything is being flushed away. As we look at this blog series which focuses on clever questions to address some of the challenges of leadership, there is in this story a key question that can be applied in the big nightmares but also in everyday challenges.
When I don’t feel in control . . . What can I control?
We are not in control
As leaders the first thing that we need to recognise is that we will not always be in control. If we go into leadership and life thinking this, we are going to be bitterly disappointed. Life is not controllable. There are often forces bigger than us that swing into action. Despite our best laid plans, plop happens. It can be small like a traffic jam on the way to an important meeting. It can be a member of the team off sick on an important presentation day. Sometimes in life it is bigger things like a serious illness of a loved one or a catastrophic event. In all of these moments we are not in control. Whatever the magnitude of the event, there are two steps to take. 1. Recognise what is out of your control; 2. Ask the simple question, ‘what can I control?’ In doing this, we regain our control. . . of the controllable.
We are not in control of people – but we can control of ourselves
Human beings are funny things. They have beliefs and emotions and needs and quirks and values. So, working with humans often means that they will do things that are not how you would do things. Sometimes they even do the complete opposite. How annoying is that! Sometimes, despite telling them what to do, maybe even explaining the reason why it needs to be done, they still don’t do it. Yet again, it feels out of control. The remedy, is again to not focus on the uncontrollable but to focus on the controllable. What can I control? I can control how I respond. I can be calm. I can be balanced. I can follow procedure. I can be fair. I can seek advice. I can try a different approach. I can apply persuasion techniques. I can talk it through with my coach.
Paul Dix, wrote a great book called ‘when adults change, everything changes’. It was written to explain to those working with children and young people, how when we focus on our behaviour it can influence their behaviour. I think this extends to our behaviour amongst adults too. We can’t make others think or behave in a certain way. But we can control how we think and behave and this in turn can influence them. If someone is angry, we can’t make them stop being angry. But we can choose to remain calm. We can choose to listen. We can choose to ask questions that help us understand how they feel. In turn, guess what? They start to calm down and their anger reduces because you have listened to them.
What are the things we can control?
In simple terms it comes down to these areas
What I think?
How I behave.
The actions I take.
The drivers that I have.
Within these regions there are many permutations. Our thinking can be shaped by choices that we make. Actions can be who we seek advice from and whether we take a moment to reflect before responding. Each of these will be shaped by who we are and what choices we have made by how we shape our character. A key driver that I found helpful in my traumatic Ofsted experience was to decide on what is my mantra or driver for this? I chose two. The first one is something that can be applied to any experience:
What story do I want to write? You are welcome to borrow it!
My second one was particularly to deal with any unfairness that was sent my way:
Bitterness will remain far from my door.
Having a mantra is like a tablet of stone that helps you in decision making around processing thoughts and feelings and then creating actions that you are proud of.
When I am in control – what can I control?
What can I control? It is a good question whether we feel in control or not. Focusing our energy on the things that can spark change and make a difference is where our energy needs to go. What can I do to manage this well? What can I do that can affect change?
My hope is that you never have to experience the loss of control that I experienced. But I do know that each day we face situations that are mini moments of loss of control. It is inevitable in life. In these moments, ask yourself the clever question – What can I control?
PS - "If you had a button that you could press that would go back to that point and change it all, would you?" It is a question I heard on the Diary of a CEO podcast where they asked of several guests who have be through uncontrollable injustice moments. In each case they hesitated. There were some elements that they recognised that they missed out on. They also recognised that through those moments of being in the uncontrollable and working through their controllables, they had changed and grown as a person. Pressing the button risked losing who they had become. My answer when people ask me the same question, is that I would never wish what happened on me or on anyone else, but I have learnt and grown from it and I am now in a better place. The nightmare doesn't have to live forever. Sometimes it turns out for good.
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