Just knowing or the importance of your gut in leadership

On Monday, I was involved in a brilliant session with staff of Ardrishaig Primary School (APS) in Argyll.  It was a review and reflection of the past twelve months and a consideration of how the school has progressed.   Despite the lockdowns much progress has been made.  How do we know?  Feedback from parents, pupils and members of staff; survey results.  I have been working with the school since November 2019 and, it is true to say that it is a much different place than back when I started.  The funny thing is, through my experience I don’t need the data to tell me that.  I can feel it in the school; the atmosphere and ambience are much more positive; there is more smiling and laughing; people are happier.  This is what I can feel.

I know what any school is like within a few minutes of entering the foyer because I can feel it.  I just kind of know.  I can’t measure it or score it, but I know.  It is just like back in the day as a Heidie, sometimes walking through the playground, or entering the school canteen, or going into a classroom something didn’t seem right.  I just knew.  I remember being on the beach in Fuengirola with the family and jumping the waves with my son Cameron.  He had the knack of timing it just right.  Curious, I asked how he did it.  He started to explain: “You look at the waves and …; it’s the white on the top of them and …; you time your run from …;  Ach I just know!’

I heard the Swedish leadership expert Kjell Nordström talk about this kind of thing at a conference in Manchester some years ago.  Kjell spoke of going to fish on a wee boat, as a boy, with his grandfather who always just knew where the fish were.  His grandfather couldn’t explain how he did it.  He just knew.  Trompenaars referred to this as tacit knowledge1.  The stuff that you know but can’t explain or put into words.

When at Newlands Junior College, I had a very wise colleague.  Donald MacLeod was his name.  He drove the mini-bus part-time but was much more than that to the students – and all of the staff.  He was a retired senior police officer – a Superintendent with Strathclyde’s finest.  I used to talk to him a lot, over a cuppa, in the canteen about leadership, human relationships and more important things like football!!  We are both ardent supporters of one of the Glasgow clubs.  Anyway, when talking about ‘just knowing things’ one day, I remember Donald saying, “When your gut is telling you something, go with your gut! Always. I used this in the police.”

So, remember, there are some things that can’t be measured, turned into data or put in a graph or table – but your gut will tell you!

  1. Tacit Knowledge

Iain White

26th May 2021

Everyone will be back at school – or will they?

So, the Scottish Government has spoken, and it looks like it will be everyone back in our schools from 11th August.  I have a question that has been nagging at me all during the lockdown and consequent school closures.  Will everyone, in fact, be back in the secondaries?   I ask this question after many years of experience as a secondary Head Teacher but more particularly because of the role that I discharged for 5 years up till last May in Newlands Junior College(NJC).

NJC was set up to cater for a niche group; a clientele that was drawn from the young people in the Southside of Glasgow who had disengaged, or were disengaging, from local authority secondary schools.  NJC took a different approach based on building positive relationships, developing skills, a significant vocational input and business partnerships.  It was extremely successful, over the 5 years of its existence, with 100% of graduates going into positive destinations in jobs or FE places.  We built up significant expertise in working with our client group.

Our young people were a disparate group of individuals with individual needs, aspirations and challenges.  They had one thing in common though.  While local authority secondary schooling suits the vast majority of young people, our client group found that its inflexibility did not suit them.  They did not like it, so they stopped attending regularly or completely.

I am concerned that many young people who were actively disengaging, or heading that way, will not return in a couple of weeks.  Even if they had sporadic attendance at school, that habit will be broken and, not going to school, reinforced by almost 5 months absence.  They will have found other things to do with their time; things that they find more entertaining than school.  Likely, they will be short on the concept of deferred gratification; in other words, apply yourself at school now to set up a positive future at some seemingly distant time.  It is also likely that already they will have been losers in a Post Code Lottery where disengagement is infinitely more likely in young people coming from areas in SIMD 1.   That’s where the majority of NJC students lived.

I feel for my colleagues in schools who will be faced with huge health, safety and wellbeing concerns.  They will have the additional stress of innumerable plates to spin as schools return.  The cry will be for catch up and to concentrate on the content required for SQA 21; to re-establish that which has been lost during the Covid-19 close down and over the summer; to emotionally support young people whose families and friends have been struck by the virus and those who are anxious about time lost at school.  All of this is quite understandable.

However, somewhere in there should come the question, “What about John in S2 that we didn’t used to see much but who hasn’t attended at all since the return.”  Where will that come in the list of priorities for people who will be stressed and stretched beyond belief?  What price narrowing the attainment gap as far as these young people are concerned?

I worry that I know the answers to these questions …

Assessment – My road to Damascus

After my blog about exam day next week and my belief in the need for a change in our assessment practices, I’d like to share where this has all come from.  Some 15 years ago or so, when I was Head at Govan High, I was part of a small, dynamic group looking at where the school should be going, particularly in the light of radical changes to the curriculum structure that we had recently made.  The school’s focus had changed to getting positive destination for allof its leavers.  We came to realise that gaining qualifications was but part of the story;  equally important was being able to succeed at interviews and to do this, leavers had to be aware of what they were good at.  In short, this meant they had to know what skills they had.  Within the school, a taxonomy of skills was developed, and a system created that identified, developed, assessed, recorded and reported on skills development.  Quickly, skills became part of the students’ vocabulary.

Some time ago, in Tes Scotland, there was information in a side panel from a CBI survey, indicating that 49% of young people believe that their education has not prepared them for the world of work.  This figure is high and yet I was not surprised.

I believe that the assessment system is based on archaic principles, with the majority of what is assessed being reliant upon the capacity to memorise and regurgitate the thoughts and findings of others.  This certainly prepares nobody for the world of work, unless they intend to earn a living from winning money in pub quizzes!  Students are put in exam rooms.  They are not allowed to communicate with anyone in the room or the world outside.  Most of all, they cannot access the vast store of information and knowledge on the world wide web.  In fact, should they be seen to be even just in possession of a smart phone, they will get no award in the exam.  What – in the 21st Century??

In any work place today, the emphasis is on teamwork and collaboration in a problem-solving approach.  Use is made of all available information on site or on the web.  As an example, in my Govan days I visited the design office at BAE Systems shipyard in Scotstoun.  Being a Greenock boy of the 60s and 70s, I was familiar with the yards from student summer jobs.  However, I was now really taken by the use of computer aided design compared to the drawing boards and pencils that I remembered from my shipyard days.  I was introduced to a designer (a Govan High FP) and he explained the problem he had in trying to site a fresh water circulating pump, because of pipework for other lines being placed in his optimum areas by other designers.  Within seconds, he was surrounded at his PC by 4 other designers and he was outlining the challenge he was facing.  He was in the Chair.  Within a few minutes of discussion, a solution had been found through their collective efforts.  Working separately, they had created a problem; working together they solved it.  The Chair finished by saying, “So everyone knows what we need to do?”  Off they went, problem solved, and the freshwater circulating pump had found a home.  The designer was not made to sort it himself in isolation!  This is how the world works.

Skills of communication, problem solving, team working, evaluation, developing positive relationships, planning courses of action etc. are what matter today – not the regurgitation of knowledge.  In 2005, Dan Pink, in his seminal book, A Whole New Mind, said, “We’ve progressed from a society of farmers, to a society of factory workers, to a society of knowledge workers.  And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathisers, of pattern recognisers and meaning makers… We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs, to an economy built on people’s left brains, to what is emerging today: an economy and society built, more and more, on people’s right brains.”  He contends that we are beyond the knowledge-based economy and we are!  It’s what we do with knowledge and information that is important.  Deep learning is important not rote learning.  The future is skills and yet our education system is rooted in the knowledge acquisition that was important in the past.

I have believed this for so many years now and yet it was really crystallised for me 3 years ago through personal rather than professional experience.  My son was preparing to sit his National 5 examinations in Business Management, English, Mathematics, Modern Studies, Physical Education and Practical Woodworking.  In this preparation he literally wasted days of his life, learning “stuff’ for regurgitation; “stuff’, the memorising of which had no intrinsic value; “stuff’ that there was no need to commit to memory, because it can be accessed in a matter of seconds from his phone.  The skill of memorising quantities of knowledge is of almost no value in today’s world.

I had such great hopes for Curriculum for Excellence, but so much is being lost along the way.  In Building the Curriculum 4 and the Experience and Outcomes, a skill set exists from which a skills taxonomy could be developed easily.  The Report of the Higher Order Skills Excellence Group said as much (1) but, sadly, the message has failed to get through.  It would be possible for the development of skills in students to be assessed, internally, along the way, and complemented by external open book exercises.  Then we might get close to assessing that which is relevant and valuable for success in the 21st Century world.

If you ask a Scottish school student the question “What are you good at?”, the answer that you will get, overwhelmingly, is “Modern Studies” or “PE” or some such – in other words a school subject.  Nowadays, we need young people to be saying communication, or team working or hand-eye co-ordination – in other words a set of skills.  That answer will never come till the students actually have a focus on skills development in their school life and are able to articulate their qualities and progress in the vocabulary of a skills taxonomy.  The future is skills, but somebody has to let students find out, and understand, what they are good at in these terms.  Our system doesn’t!  It is possible though– we did it at Govan. Back then, our success was confirmed for me when an English teacher spoke to me about a conversation she had with one of her students.  She was exhorting him to work hard for his upcoming National 5 English exam;  his response was, “Yes Miss, qualifications will get me an interview but it’s the skills that will get me a job!”

I had a conversation with a colleague who holds a senior position in the SQA examination team at National 5 level.  It is his view that open book assessments could be devised in English “any time.”  What is the value in memorising endless quotations from novels or poems in our world today?

In my considered view, based on my extensive professional experience, and now as a parent stakeholder, our education system in Scotland has a number of serious shortcomings that do a disservice to our young people and lead to the system failing to meet their needs, the needs of our economy and the needs of our society.  The assessment regime being unfit for purpose is but one of these shortcomings.

Just what do exam results tell us?

This terrible Coronavirus crisis has many implications.  As one of the very fortunate who has kept healthy (thus far), I have found that I have more thinking time while I spend my days around the house with my family.  Some of this I devote to matters educational.  

I have long had a bee in my bonnet about how we assess young people’s learning.  Actually, through the SQA, we almost always assess only a part of their learning, namely ‘stuff’ they have memorised and can regurgitate, under ‘exam conditions’.  There is a huge irony here.  This must be the skill that is least useful in 21st Century life, given the vast store of factual information available, within seconds, on the web – unless, of course, you earned your living, pre-crisis, from Pub Quizzes.  It’s what we do with knowledge that is important now and how we interact with it to apply it in new situations.  We need skills in problem solving, team working, adaptability, communication and the like.  Yet our exam system does not assess these.

Assessment must be more appropriate to the world today, fit for purpose and focus on skills developed and competencies therein.  Society needs an education system with assessment that is brand new.  Or does it?

My Dad trained as a joiner in the 1930s and served in the Royal Navy for 6 years in World War 2.  As a relatively new recruit in 1940, he applied to train as a shipwright, saying that he could provide papers to prove he was a joiner.  The RN was not interested in his paper qualifications.  He was told to report to a workshop full of materials, tools and machinery,  where he was given a detailed drawing of a window frame.  The assessment task was simple.  Dad was told to make the frame.  He did, and, having demonstrated that his skills and competence were at the required level, he was accepted to train as a shipwright.  There was no written component to the test.  The RN simply asked him to make something!

Maybe what society needs to do today is to ask itself what it needs from the qualifications system in schools; maybe the education system needs to ask itself what it needs to do to prepare young people for life in our ever-changing world and assess their skills development to provide relevant qualifications?  My argument is that knowledge regurgitation in an exam hall is not a required skill any longer; it is almost as irrelevant as ‘sabre toothed tiger chasing with fire’ – once a vitally important skill but no longer needed!  Yet, given Dad’s experience, ironically, we might find assessment tools that are relevant for today in the past!!

Harry White trained extensively in the RN, became a shipwright, deep-sea diver and a Chief Petty Officer.  On leaving the Navy, he worked as a joiner for a time and then trained to be a technical teacher.  He spent his time in schools focussing on getting young people skilled and then into employment.  But that’s another story …

Robert Burns and Organisational Culture

I was delivering the Immortal Memory at a Burns Lunch yesterday.  Being a Burns fan, and a speaker, it’s something I do a lot at this time of year.  My enjoyment of haggis is undiminished despite the frequency with which it is set before me.  As you go to speak at different places, the haggis you are served can be very different in flavour, texture and mode of preparation.  It can be extremely appetizing – or otherwise.  

As a speaker, your subject matter may have to differ as much as the haggis!  It depends upon lots of things: whether the event is mixed or single sex; the nature of the group that has organised it; the make up of the audience; even what part of the country you are speaking in.  Yesterday, my audience was the Glasgow Business Club.  The lunch was held at the House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park.  The surroundings were beautiful and so too was the meal.

We were well set up.  In thinking about my theme for the Immortal Memory, I had been very conscious of my business focused audience.  I have been associated with the Club for about 25 years, as both schools that I headed up (Govan High and Newlands Junior College) were members.  Govan High even got to the final of the ‘Business of the Year’ competition one year!  I have piped in the haggis many, many times and this was my 4th time speaking there.  In days gone by, Govan High band and singers entertained the guests as they assembled.  I knew the gig!

I came up with the idea of having the theme, “Robert Burns – a man of principles and beliefs” and that this was one reason why I admired him.  I would source some principles and beliefs from his poems and use quotations to substantiate my claims.  It wasn’t difficult.  They were in my head already.  A quick browse through the collected poems and the real preparation and writing began.

The principles and beliefs that I chose were equality, truth and honesty, hard work, support from and for his fellow beings and basic humanity.  The poems I quoted from were The Twa Dogs, The Tree of Liberty, A Man’s a Man for a’ that, Epitaph for Willie Muir of Tarbolton Mill, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn, Lament for Gavin Hamilton and Man was made to Mourn.  They are mostly well-known poems.  Having itemized the principles and beliefs I then posed the rhetorical question to the audience, “Can you be proud of Robert Burns because of these principles and beliefs that he had?”  Having said that I certainly could, the next question I posed was, “If the world was run according to these principles would it be a far better place?”  Everyone was nodding.

Building on that success, I went to the real point or message of the speech.  I asked that last question again but substituted “your workplace/business” for “the world”.  I then ran through each of the principles in turn and applied them to the culture of organisations.  

For the equality principle, it was another rhetorical question, namely, “Do we really need to start on how a failure to observe the basic principles of equality has led to real challenges for some employers?”  In highlighting truth and honesty, I told of how I used to always stress to prospective/new employees that we had to operate on the basis of being truthful and honest.  It made things easier in long run and brought integrity to the organisation. I then asked, “How much better would the world of business be if everyone operated from this base line?  Within and across businesses ….”  In considering hard work, we thought about how commitment, energy and application are all important for success.  Support for fellow beings took us into pastoral and developmental areas.  Do we notice when someone is struggling a bit, do we seek to help them, do we empathize?  Do we remember that we work to live and not the opposite?  If you take the terrible modern-day term human resource, where does our emphasis lie? On the human or the resource?  Do we give colleagues a leg up – or in the scramble would we rather seek to keep them down?   Basic humanity could be seen to go beyond application in your own business into the world of corporate social responsibility.

I concluded by urging the members of the audience, that should they nothing else away from the day, to take these basic principles of Robert Burns – equality, truth and honesty, hard work, support for fellow beings and basic humanity – with them into their workplace;  to have them in mind for how they operated as people; to incorporate them into their mission statements, vison and values and company aims.  

It is my belief that with such an approach, company performance improves.  I endeavoured in all my years as a boss to operate in this way and it worked for me and my colleagues in the places I led.

I received extremely positive feedback from the Club and members of the audience.  My Burns message had been striking a chord.  A couple of lengthy conversations followed after the meeting was over.

I heard Sir Tom Farmer once say, “Nowadays we spend too much time valuing targets and not enough time targeting values.”  He is correct!

Iain White 29.01.2020

Over the Top

My son Cameron and I had a boys’ night out last night.  We went to the local cinema at the Waterfront to see Sam Mendes’s First World War film 1917.  It is not just a film; it is an experience.  You feel as if you are in the trenches and crossing No Man’s Land with Schofield and Blake and then in the burning fires of Hell with Schofield.  It is a doomsday mission for the two Lance Corporals with Blake meeting his when we least expected it. The film is tense, thrilling, dramatic, poignant, shocking, emotional and sad.  And the experts on trench warfare tell us it is realistic too.  Both Cameron and I were moved by the experience because that is what it was – an experience.

That experience has had me thinking this morning about leadership.  The two young Lance Corporals embarked upon the doomsday mission, one having been given the task because of his skills in map reading and pathfinding and the other he selected as his companion.  The officer had given the order which they followed.  

My reflection had me thinking about my years working for people who were my bosses.  The military imperative for following orders was never there but an analogy came into my mind and it this.  I had many bosses over the years for whom I would have gone (figuratively) over the top, without question or hesitation, because I trusted them and their judgement, I believed in them, respected them, shared their beliefs and values.  There are a few others that I would have (figuratively) taken the chance of the Court Martial and possible firing squad.  I would not have gone over.

Why?  In the case of the first group, I would have gone over for them; in the case of the second group, I would not have gone over for them.  For them – because people follow people, not policies, processes, management circulars.  So, all this led me to think – people follow people. If you have a leadership role, make sure you role model your beliefs and values and treat other people well.


I take regular email newsletters from Dan Pink, the American author, journalist, and television host. His most recent Pinkcast was based upon incivility in our society.  He cited “Trolls. Road rage and social media weaponized to destroy. We face an epidemic of incivility.” 

The Pinkcast had a simple antidote from Professor Christine Porath, a Georgetown University Professor of Management, and the USA’s leading researcher on civility. Porath claims that when the atmosphere is civil, people feel respected, feel valued have a sense of belonging and feel part of the team.  This leads to them being much more productive, focused, creative and helpful.  The antidote is called the “10-5 Rule”. It’s simple.  If you are within 10 feet of someone you make eye contact and smile; within 5 feet you say, “Hello.” Used in a hospital system in the USA, patient satisfaction scores rose, and more people were referred to the hospital.  

The video clip interested me.  Remember the old saying, “Civility costs nothing?”  I had just watched this clip when I visited a number of hotels on business.  In each one, I was struck by the way that members of staff acknowledged me, as I passed, with a smile and a word of welcome.  Of course, I reciprocated.  It gave me a feeling of welcome and warmth. “It’ll be part of their training,” I can hear you say.  That’s as may be, but is it part of the training for staff in your organisation?  Also, it shouldn’t just be for the public/customer facing staff either.  Porath’s point was about developing a positive culture throughout the organisation, so it is for everyone to use with everyone – visitors and colleagues alike.

Try that smile thing.  It’s a reflex.  Mostly you will get a smile back.  Also, a word of greeting should bring a response.  See how it makes you feel… 

As Brucie used to say, ”Nice to see you; to see you nice!”

Iain White 23rd November 2019

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

I came across this quotation from the Dalai Lama on LinkedIn and then tweeted it.  Why did it resonate with me to the extent that I would take the trouble to circulate it in this way?  Well, there is a story …

 In my new business venture, I have come into contact with a couple of businessmen who were pupils when I started my teaching career in away back in 1977.  Gail and I were at a meeting with them in their premises a week or so ago talking about some work that we might do together on a really creative idea that they have come up with. 

In the preamble, while the tea was being poured, we were conversing about the school all those years ago and what it was like.  Our reminiscences took us on a journey where we spoke about the good things about the school and the not so good.  The discussion made me think about how things have changed since back then.  I suppose most dramatically, the behaviour management techniques used by the teachers were singularly less humane in these days.  We used to assault the students with leather belts, specially made in Lochgelly for the purpose, for goodness sake!  Strangely enough, that wasn’t the thing that they were highlighting most as a bad memory.  The memory with this distinction was the prevailing custom back then of teachers calling male pupils by their second names – Smith, Jones or whatever rather than James or John.  “I hated that,” said one of them.

I remember thinking the very same thing when I had been a pupil some 10 years before them.  I hated it too and determined, when I became a teacher, that this was something I wouldn’t do, and I didn’t.  My belief was, and is, that it is an approach that is fundamentally unkind.  When I saw the quotation from the Dalai Lama, I put it together with this conversation.

We would all do well to consider this as a maxim in our lives – both at work and beyond.  Whatever your job, treat those around you with kindness.  If you are in a supervisory role you can discharge your duties with kindness.  Colleagues who are not meeting expectations can be redirected with kindness; those who are can be acknowledged with kindness.  I believe that both groups will respond positively to the approach and in the final analysis it will help to build a more positive organisational culture.

People respond to kindness – and a smile works wonders.  Smile at somebody as you pass them and they’ll smile back.  Just try it if you don’t believe me.  When you are at the checkout in the supermarket or filling station, ask the store employee how they are or how their day is going.  They will respond positively.  It is simply human nature.  My late Uncle Joe used to say, “It’s nice to be nice.”  He was right.



Leadership lessons from a golf outing

As the new session gets under way in Scottish schools, I have been reflecting on how I have been spending my summer.  Last month, I was away on my annual golfing trip with 3 pals. It has been going on for around 20 years and the format has remained more or less the same having 3 nights away with 18 holes on each of the 4 days.  We return home after the 4thgame.  We have visited many golf courses in Scotland and the North of England. Our furthest venture was to The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands.  This year’s trip was a wonderful experience at Lancaster Golf Club. We resided in the Club’s Dormy House accommodation, 2 minutes from the first tee.  It was one of our best – the clubhouse is the former home of Lord Ashton – Ashton Hall, where the public rooms are spectacular.  The course itself is a great test being challenging but fair and is in excellent order.   

There are a few leadership messages that spin out of our wee golfing group and its trips.  One is about the nature of relationships.  Obviously, given the longevity of our trips, ours is a long-standing friendship group.  We have golf as a common denominator, but other interests link us although these are not the same across the board.  Apart from the outing, we may gather, socially as a group perhaps twice a year, at most.  We don’t even play at the same golf club.

One year, when we were away, we were discussing where we might go on future trips.  The suggestion came up that we might go abroad.  This provoked some reflection and the observation was made that we would have to go away for a longer period of time.  However, the notion was quickly rejected when one of our 4 made the following observations.  “I don’t want to spend a week away with you 3 guys.  What we do just now is fine – 4 days.  That gives us time to catch up, swap stories, have just enough golf and get home before we start to get on one another’s nerves!”  We haven’t changed our approach and our friendship group is still intact.

This led me to think about the importance of relationships at work and how challenging it can be.  Like our relatives, we don’t get to choose our work colleagues – unless you’re the boss, of course!  Chances are that there will be some around you that you could like better, but you have to adjust and get along with them to make it all work, if you pardon the pun. 

“It’s not personal Sonny.  It’s strictly business.”  Michael Corleone said this to his brother in The Godfather.  Whether anything can ever by “strictly business” is debatable. However, in the work context, this maxim became ever clearer and more relevant to me as my position in the organisational hierarchy increased.  As a Head Teacher, I would sometimes say explicitly that I did not come to work to find friends but to do a job; I didn’t need people to be my friends, but we had to get along in the interests of the job.  This approach also eliminates potential complications if friendship overlaps with a discussion about job performance. Building effective working relationships is vitally important to success but more than that can bring challenges.

Iain White 26th August 2019