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7 Questions with Paul Browning
helps you in your leadership.
7 Questions with Paul Browning
Name: Paul Browning
Current title: Headmaster
Current organisation: St Paul's School
Dr Paul Browning (PhD, MEdAdmin (Hons), BEd, DipTeach) has been a Headmaster at two large independent schools in Australia for 23 years.
Paul’s expertise is leadership and school culture. He believes that trust is the fundamental resource for successful leadership and a healthy school culture. His PhD research into the practices that engender trust was nominated for an outstanding thesis award and won an Executive Dean’s commendation from Queensland University of Technology. He is the author of “Compelling Leadership: The importance of trust and how to get it”
(Apple iBooks). “Compelling Leadership should be pinned to every CEO's Desk”
(David Price OBE),
“Rarely does a book about leadership come along that is practical and inspiring. Compelling Leadership has both of these”
(Professor Alma Harris).
The work on leadership led Paul to be invited by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK's Sutton Trust to speak at a 2014 global summit of educational leaders in Washington DC. Attendants at the summit endorsed his work, rating it as a powerful and practical method to improve school culture and teacher performance.
Paul has published numerous journal articles and is a peer reviewer for research articles on leadership for the International Journal of Leadership in Education. He is a sort after speaker at conferences, both nationally and internationally, and has led workshops on leadership for over 4000 school leaders and CEOs. In 2017 St Paul's School was listed amongst the Top 40 most innovative schools in Australia, and Paul was listed in the Top 50 most influential people in education. In 2018 St Paul's was recognised by one of Cambridge University's peak bodies as one of the top 100 most innovative learning organisations in the world and at the inaugural Australian Education Awards Paul was awarded best non-government school principal and the school won three awards: best innovation in curriculum, best professional development program, and best strategic plan. In 2019 St Paul's School was awarded Australian School of the Year and Paul was awarded the QACEL Miller-Grassie Award for outstanding educational leadership and his contribution to research. Paul's latest book, "Principled: 10 leadership practices for building trust" is written for leaders from all spheres. “A timely and important book for all those who seek to lead in the shadow of past wrongs”
(Tim Costello AO),
Principled is available from all good bookstores.
Which option best describes the religious affiliation of the organisation you currently work for or most recently worked for?
Christian religious affiliation
What type of organisation do you work for or support?
School (5-17 y/os)
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?
The role of principal of an independent school is one of the most complex CEO roles you will find. Schools don’t deliver on one or two products, but a huge range of products: English courses, maths courses, sport programs, personal development programs, pastoral care, music, and in the case of St Paul’s School, international education programs.
Schools by their very nature are complex organisations. There are multiple stakeholders, each with their own expectations: students, staff, parents, past students, governing bodies, and government authorities. Managing the expectations of people, groups and authorities is probably the most challenging aspect of a leader in a school; all while trying to ensure you have a great community that is united in what it believes about education.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
There is no such thing as ‘work-life balance’. It is a myth.
Exceptional leaders live and breathe their role 24/7. You are always thinking, reflecting, planning, and even working. The trick is, “how you turn up to your other roles”, like husband, father, friend. If you can’t turn off from work and focus on the most important person in front of you, like your children, then you risk everything. My typical day starts at 6am, checking emails. I rise before my wife and so can do this without distraction. Breakfast, reading the news, before heading to work at 7am.
No two days are the same—that is the exciting thing about being a leader in a school. My diary is organised by my Assistant. It can be packed with back-to-back meetings, travel, a class, or be totally disrupted by an unexpected event.
Meetings often extend into the evening. I can finish anywhere between 5pm and 10pm.
I have never taken a lunch break, but that is my personal preference. I would rather work through. But I do ask my Assistant to block out 30 mins a day so I can have a mental break (I am an introvert and so need a little space to myself).
It’s how I turn up when I go home that is important. The first thing I do when I walk in the door, after I have greeted my wife, is to go upstairs, take off my watch and suit, and change into my shorts and t-shirt. The ritual of taking off my ‘work clothes’ and putting on my ‘home clothes’ helps me transition between the two roles and be fully present for my wife.
I never wear a watch when I’m not working. Just a small thing, but it helps me remember what role I am playing when.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
COVID-19 taught me much about myself, and how I lead. After getting over the initial, irrational, personal fears I had for my health and my future, I found I, subconsciously, changed the way I led.
With the threat of school closures looming early March 2020 I found myself being a more autocratic leader, taking control of the situation. This is quite a different style to my preferred leadership practice of distributive leadership.
On reflection was that a bad thing? No. In a crisis people feel safe when someone assumes control (as long as they make good decisions!). But once the crisis has past it is important to return to normality as soon as possible. The power that comes with autocratic leadership can be intoxicating and incredibly dangerous.
4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I have many favourites, but as I am a person who believes in empowering others and creating teams I love Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.
Lencioni is a storyteller. He has woven the story of a dysfunctional leadership team into salient advice for leaders wishing to take their organisations, in the words of Jim Collins, from good to great.
I read this book prior to commencing my second headship. I had built a great leadership team at that school without realising what I was doing. But the second school had an existing culture that was very different to my values and leadership style. I had to teach the senior leaders how to be a good team. Lencioni gave me the tools to do that.
5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?
I learnt a valuable lesson very early on. Great leaders employ people better than them. Really hard if you have a warped perception of your abilities (or you have narcissistic tendencies!) but if you don’t build a team with people better than you, then the organisation will only be as good as you. And in my case, the organisation would be pretty mediocre.
My second lesson was to realise and accept that I am the leader, my role is now to grow the next generation of leaders. Over the years I have intentionally developed my coaching skills to help grow other’s capacities, and hopefully, prepare them to take on my role. Great leaders have the confidence to make themselves redundant.
6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
In my 23 years of experience, I have learned that leadership boils down to two things: vision and trust. And of those two things, trust is the most important.
Realise it or not, it is the CEO who shapes the culture of an organisation. In fact, how they behave and act as a leader has a 70% impact on the organisation’s climate.
Organisations with high levels of trust have been shown to be 50% more productive, report less stress and burnout amongst staff, have fewer lost days to illness and generate more new ideas and innovations. In schools, trust has been shown to even improve academic outcomes.
Realising that it was trust that influenced the way people worked I completed a PhD on leadership and trust. That work uncovered 10 key practices that will create a culture of trust.
If you are interested in finding out more than my book, “Principled: 10 leadership practices for building trust” is available at all good bookstores.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?
There are many stories I could share, but it is the lessons from those stories that are the most powerful. The most meaning can be found when you have a lasting positive impact on another person or community. This is particularly true for education. Leadership should never be about you, but about the other person.
Hugh Mackay said it beautifully: “Leadership is an example of the life lived for others, because, as any truly effective leader knows, leadership is the ultimate form of service to a community, organisation or society.”
We're looking at doing a limited, online 30 minute leadership masterclass in the next couple of months. What topic/s would you find most valuable from a leadership masterclass?
“What is your legacy?”