The heavy metal heartbeat

Every school has a heartbeat. The rhythm that everything within follows, sometimes syncopated, but always mindful of the beat that plays constantly in the background. It holds everything together and everyone relies on it. As senior leaders in our schools, it is our responsibility to set an appropriate rhythm and to ensure that this heartbeat persists.

Heavy metal music is nothing without its rhythm, without the drummer diligently beating out a dynamic and exciting rhythm, impelling the music forwards with momentum and raw impulse.

“The rhythm in metal songs is emphatic, with deliberate stresses.” (Wikipedia)

Emphatic. Forceful. Absolute. Is this not the rhythm of leadership? Is this not the passionate, daily rhythm that we beat out for all of those in our care to hear and play along to? The lows and pig squeals of leadership are tough, plus all the staff and pupils have their own daily death growls to contend with, so for our rhythm to be heard over the vociferous noise blaring out in the life of the school, surely it has to be assertive and incessant? But this rhythm must be motivated by our passionate belief behind what we are saying, as it is this that makes the change.

But it’s the “deliberate stresses” part of the heavy metal rhythm that should perhaps resonate most clearly with senior leaders. The definition of ‘deliberate’ is calculated, measured and intended. Therefore the very nature of the word suggests that we have put those stresses there on purpose; is this true? Quite possibly. How many times have we left planning the inset day until the last minute, despite knowing we should do it for weeks before hand? Taken criticism from a governor personally, even though we understand their reasons for challenging us? Decided on a challenging school improvement priority that will take more time and resources than we have available, in spite of there being other just as significant strategic choices available? As senior leaders we have the power to set the rhythm for our own working lives, as well as for the school, and no matter how much we blame time pressures, commitments, external issues, this rhythm is still intentional. So often this ‘deliberate stress’ is a direct result of our compassion. Most of us are senior leaders first and foremost because we care and because we want to make a difference in the lives of everyone in our schools. We want to help the child who is struggling to come to terms with their family situation. We want to support the teacher who is contending with personal issues. We want to support the family who have recently fled to the UK from their previous country. None of these stresses are even mandatory for us, but as senior leaders we care and choose take them on. But is it this deliberateness of controlling the rhythm, which makes us so emphatic in asserting the very heartbeat of the school?

According to Weinstein (2004) the rhythm created by metal drummers takes on a complexity within its elemental drive and insistency. That is, it is not a simple rhythmic beat the drummer in a heavy metal band delivers for his band mates, but something more complicated, intricate and possibly tortuous, providing the impetus and forcefulness behind the raging music. The drummer cannot sit back and relax, he cannot lose focus or force and he must remain engrossed and fixed on the beats he is delivering beneath the music blaring from the stage.

Elemental drive. Elemental implies the essential, or basic, part needed, implying perhaps, that a leader without drive is not a leader. It is a relentless drive for the very best for everyone in the school that makes effective senior leaders. It is our persistent ambition that persuades people to jump on and be part of the journey towards our vision together. It is our implacable effort and belief for every individual to achieve the very best they can that drives the school forwards. Like a heavy metal band with a bland, languorous drummer, senior leadership without a basic, elemental drive, would fall flat. Without an inexorable drive towards our vision we would find ourselves isolated and extricated from the school and beating out a solitary rhythm all of our own, completely out of time with the rest of the school.

A complex insistency. Complex. Leadership isn’t simple; it involves leading people, both children and adults, who each have their own ideas, opinions and behaviour. A true leader will be able to listen to each individual view, understand (or take the time to understand) these views, elicit their ideas and assimilate them all efficiently and effectively to synthesise a vision, or at the very least, clear operational guidelines. This will never be easy, and someone will always feel ignored, overlooked or just plain hard done by. How you steer a path for yourself and others through this is complex, like the drummer in the band beating out an intricate series of beats, trying to get the whole band to play together in time as a cohesive unit.

Insistency. Never giving up. Often leaders are likened to a dog with a bone. If you have stuck through the complexity, taken the time, invested yourself, worked that hard, why would you not insist? A good leader doesn’t just see what needs to be done, they have a vision, and in order to convince people to jump on your wagon, you need to be insistent. But insistency is so much more than this. It’s the persistence required to ensure the very best for everyone. It’s the constant emails, phone calls and meetings to try and assure the much needed educational psychology appointment for the child and family that desperately need it. It’s the doggedness required in governor meetings to persuade them that yes, funding really is required to secure that project you have planned. Everyday we must find the tenacity to fight with an insistence to deliver what each individual in our schools needs.

But what about when things interrupt our rhythm and the heartbeat becomes weak or irregular? How can we ensure the heartbeat we provide remains assertive and sure throughout testing times? What impact would Ofsted have on the beat of your school? Would a heart attack strike when you received ‘the call’? Like the drummer who feels pain onstage, only the most serious of injuries will prevent them finishing the set and pounding out the persistent pulse for their band mates, it is imperative that the rhythm we set continues to punctuate insistently throughout these pressured occasions.

There are times, however, in school life when it is necessary for the rhythm to cease, just like the bridge of a heavy metal song where the drummer drops out. By the drummer ceasing to play he only serves to emphasise the strength and ferocity his playing gives the song. In the same way, by stepping back and reducing the volume of our rhythm, we give others permission to lead without us, to put their own stamp on the song, but all the while knowing that the heartbeat we have set will come back stronger and more forceful as we count everyone back in together.

If, as senior leaders, we do not set a heartbeat for our schools that encapsulates our vision, and then continue to deliver and provide this emphatic and resolute rhythm, with a complexity, elemental drive and insistency, then we are not working with enough passion. And we most certainly do not deserve success. Just like a heavy metal song would be incomplete and fall apart without its drummer delivering the forceful, driving rhythm, so our schools would begin to fragment and fail without us sounding this heavy metal heartbeat daily for those in our schools.

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