What licking a rubbish bin can teach you about leadership

Here’s an actual real life conversation I had with a 7 year old in 2019.


Me: Hey, Brooklyn, what are you doing?

Brooklyn: Oh, I’m just licking the rubbish bin.

Me: Um… wha… hold on… why?

Brooklyn: Josh dared me to.

Me: Mate, just because someone tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to.

Brooklyn: I do have to or he won’t let me play with him at lunch time.


As any teacher would, I went on to give a rousing speech about how we all get to make our own choices and each one of us gets to decide what is the right and wrong thing for us to do. That’s what we do isn’t it, we encourage kids to make their own choices and not let their classmates boss them around. 

We ask kids to think critically about what they’re told to do, yet, we don’t tend to practise that so much ourselves. 


Think about all of the things that you do just because it’s the way we do things around here

  • Do you have to use a specific resource or approach for teaching handwriting/maths/mindfulness?
  • Are you only allowed to use a black pen when commenting in a student’s writing book?
  • Do you have to be onsite until 4.30 every day?

There will be gazillions of practices like this that happen regularly and make your school what it is. Sometimes, they’re well researched decisions that align with the vision and values of your school. But, not all of the time (queue the DUN-DUN-DUUUUUN sound effect). 


You’ve probably experienced this before: “I’m pulling rank and deciding that you’re all going to …” < < < This right here is the grown up version of “go and lick the rubbish bin if you want to play with me.” And so often we let it happen! There are leaders out there who (with the best of intentions) are causing a whole lot of damage to the wellbeing of our teachers by thinking that a good leader tells people what to do. 

Now, you’re not just a good leader, no sir-ee-BOB! You’re a magnificent visionary who will not succumb to the status quo. So, how can you make sure that you’re not unconsciously carrying on like a playground bully, and still get things done? Easy, just think; WE not ME. 


What works best for you, won’t necessarily be the best for everyone else. Most of the time that’s cool, we’re all unique and should be able to teach in a way that works best for us and the kids in our space. But in situations where standardisation is important, the ONLY way those decisions should be made is collaboratively. You’ve got to ASK, not TELL. 


Here are some common examples of problems that are often solved with a “this is what we’re doing because I said so” approach & how you can turn it around:

  • Report writing: it’s confusing for parents if every teacher is doing something different, what guidelines can we create together that capture all of the best bits of what is already happening? 
  • Planning in a collaborative space: colleagues and relievers struggle to find things when someone is out, let’s find a system that makes our planning and resources easily accessible.
  • Communication: everyone keeps complaining that they don’t know what’s going on, what systems & behaviours will help us to up our communication with each other?
  • Curriculum: our maths data is not looking flash, let’s brainstorm some ideas for how we might breathe some new life into our programme.


There are a million other things that you can apply the ASK not TELL approach to in any leadership role. Once you do, you get to enjoy being part of a team that is engaged, happier and WAY more successful than a team who are sitting back waiting to be told what to do. 


Remember: Don’t make people lick any rubbish bins, or after a while, no one will want to have lunch with you any more. 


Cheers to you for changing the world one question at a time xoxox

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