Education Exposed, by Samuel Strickland

Why I read it – I’d seen a couple of talks by Sam Strickland, and follow him on Twitter, where he voices his views about school culture with clarity. I initially pegged him as ‘no nonsense’ – a Headteacher with high expectations of students’ behaviour, attitude and respect; given that I worked in a school with similarly high standards in this area, I nodded along wholeheartedly. But the term ‘no nonsense’ has woeful shortcomings, especially to describe Sam, who is principled, thoughtful and extremely knowledgeable. Sam had spoken at length on Twitter about school transformation and getting culture right, and Education Exposed gave me the chance to see some of his other views and passions regarding how to run a brilliant school.

In summary

The book describes itself as a ‘dip in, dip out’ guide to school improvement, with self-contained chapters ranging from leadership, behaviour, curriculum, and workload.

I’d describe Education Exposed as concise. It’s light in the hand. Strickland spares us lengthy anecdotes, charts, or preaching, and instead provides clear, precise explanations of his beliefs. To quote Sum 41, it’s all killer, no filler. Every idea is rooted in something tangible; you won’t find yourself reading three pages until you get to the actionables.

Each chapter begins with a list of common misconceptions, which I found thought provoking and useful, followed by the key reflections.

Key takeaways

  1. Behaviour should be taught like a subject – you should read this chapter for yourself, but in summary, Strickland points out that some Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses neglect full behaviour training, and this often continues throughout our careers. Students need routines, clear expectations, and to have those expectations regularly explained and followed through. Leaders need to set the tone for behavioural expectations, all day every day, setting the right culture, and reframing the notion that poor behaviour is the fault of classroom teachers.
  2. Teachers are the experts – let them teach – we need to invest in teachers and their development as much as possible. They are experts in their subject, excellent practitioners with pedagogical knowledge, and they need to be treated as such. I’ve merged a few chapters together with this takeaway, but Strickland dedicates a chapter to workload, and how we can release teachers from unnecessary tasks so that they can focus on being the best teachers they can for our children. In short, value teachers!
  3. Subject knowledge is king and curriculum is God – these are Strickland’s choice of words, and demonstrate how strongly he feels about the importance of designing and implementing the curriculum. He advocates a knowledge-rich curriculum, and brings together ideas from experts about the nature of excellent curriculum: its knowledge focus, links between topics, and having a beginning, middle and end. When I started teaching, I felt I was trained in tasks. ‘Which tasks are you doing?’ ‘Have you thought about your task variety?’ But Strickland’s chapters focus us on how to plan our curriculum and lessons for learning and knowledge acquisition.

Favourite quote

‘We permit what we promote, and we promote what we permit’

I’ve always used the phrase ‘what we accept becomes acceptable’, but I like Sam’s even more. As a leader, it’s so important to focus on what we want to promote among students and staff, and how we enable that. But we have to walk to the walk, too. Whatever we allow to happen in our schools, be it turning a blind eye to uniform infractions or allowing sub-par culture among staff, becomes acceptable to others. Then it becomes the norm. Whichever values we communicate and promote, we must then put the time into carrying out.

Favourite moment

The final chapter is called ‘All aboard the training bus’, and examines staff development. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the last couple of years, and I’m sure Sam left it until last for a reason. He proposes that we invest in subject knowledge (and with it, co-planning and collaboration), the human and social capital of the staff as a whole, and that we support staff as much as possible during their development journey.

This book is about raising standards in schools so that the children get the best possible deal, and is filled with ideas about how we implement high expectations, routines, and don’t waiver from our values. But at the heart of everything Sam writes is a commitment to looking after our staff, and committing to their wellbeing and development.

Question and reflect

  • As leaders, do we recognise that ‘we permit what we promote, and we promote what we permit’, and constantly focus on whether we are upholding the values that we communicate?
  • Sam splits his book into the important components of a brilliant school. Do we spend an equal share of our efforts on culture, behaviour, curriculum, staff development? Which of these areas do we potentially spend less time on?
  • Sam’s views are thoughtful, considered, and based on experience; they are also forthright and clear. If someone asked us about our school, would we be able to articulate our values and beliefs with the same clarity? If not, why not?

Read this if…

You want to reflect on the key ingredients of a purposeful and thriving school

You are a leader and you want to learn from a headteacher with clear views and actionable ideas

Order from the publisher here

The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova

Why I read it

I’ve been following Konnikova on Twitter for a while, and last year I noticed that Sam Freedman (yes, you should follow him too), had recommended her latest book, The Biggest Bluff. Having seen her speak a few times on the circuit, I knew she’d write with fluency, flair, intelligence and humour, and the subject matter was of particular interest to me. The process of mastering a skill from novice to elite level – how often are we able to immerse ourselves in someone’s journey from the start?  Sure, we read about elite performers recounting, years later, how they rose to the top; I wanted to see how someone told this story from day one.

Delving into the world of professional poker also felt like a fascinating rabbit hole, so I envisaged a psychological version of a Louis Theroux subculture.

In summary

Writer, speaker and psychology expert Maria Konnikova decides to take a career break and become a professional poker player. That’s it, I’m hooked.

I’m a poker fan (that is, I spent many hours in my late teens and early twenties playing with friends), and had a natural affinity with the book’s content, and the game’s key concepts. But this book isn’t ‘about’ poker. Konnikova is learning poker, playing poker, sometimes winning poker. But, as you would expect from a psychology expert, this is a book about human behaviour.

We start with her seeking out a coach, and boy does she choose a good one, and follow from the initial online tournaments, to tons of reflections with experts, to eventually building up to the World Series tournaments. Konnikova could probably summarise the tournament progression in a single chapter, but dedicates most of the text to what she learnt about chance, reading people’s behaviour, confidence, and many other psychological insights.

Key takeaways

1. ‘Key to the game is playing the man, not the cards.’ Who doesn’t like a quote from a Matt Damon poker movie (Rounders, 1998)? You can learn probabilities to work out the chance of your hand winning, but poker is about bluffing, betting, confidence, and behaviour. In life and work, we become experts in certain topics, but if we underestimate the factor that people and our behaviour play in any situation, then we’ve missed the point (and lost the hand!)

2. Don’t assume you know more than the environment is telling you – Konnikova cites studies, conducted by herself and others, that show that we can make more poor decisions when we overestimate our knowledge or control. Furthermore, if we have a gut feeling about something, or feel invested in a choice, we often ignore statistics, reason and evidence, and continue regardless of what the environment is telling us. This is a fascinating early chapter about how our own feelings, perceptions and experiences can cloud our better judgment and the situation we are in.

3. Objective? Good decisions – I love this wisdom from coach Erik Seidel, who quotes a poker guru. The aim of poker, they propose, is to make good decisions, not to win money. Winning or losing hands isn’t important if your process was good. Did you follow the process that you practised? Did you stay calm and not get lost in the moment? In life, we won’t win every time – but if we reflect on what happened and know that we followed our desired values and methods, then we’ll win more than lose.

Favourite quotes

Well, I was pleased to read a variety of literary quotes in The Biggest Bluff.

Don Quixote: ‘the weather will soon improve and things will go well for us, because it is not possible for the bad or the good to endure forever’.  Sorry Don, but the luck won’t change in your favour just because you’re ‘due’!

W H Auden: ‘Language is the mother, not the handmaiden of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before’.  I’d never read this quote, but I think it’s beautiful and such a validation of why we reflect, write, and pertinently for me, use coaching as a method to verbalise our challenges and ideas.

Favourite moment

Konnikova spends the majority of the book, and indeed her formative poker experiences, studying others. But, as she progresses and wants to increase her ability, she realises that the only person that she hasn’t profiled yet is herself. So, she hires an expert to watch hundreds of hours of her playing poker, to inform her of her tells and habits at the table, and what those could be communicating to others. Beyond this, she examines some of her innate traits, such as not being a natural risk taker and that leading to regular folding in risky hands. This chapter, I felt, was hugely personal, probably quite difficult to write and acknowledge, and it was humbling to read about someone exposing their inner characteristics. But mostly what I liked about it was that we often invest time and resources in studying elite performers or thinkers, before we truly explore our own behaviour, biases, habits, views. Have we done enough of our own soul searching and self-reflecting?

Question and reflect

  • What are the different stages to mastering something? What are we trying to master right now, and are we taking all the steps we can? Theory, practice, people, self reflection.
  • I liked the notion of ‘good decisions’ being the purpose of poker. When we accept we can’t win every time, but we can make sure we follow good processes and the best decisions available to us, that focuses us back on method and away from outcome.

Read this if:

You love entering a subculture with real depth and intrigue

You want to learn about human behaviour

You like literary non-fiction, clean prose, humour and reflection

Support bookshops and find it here

Legacy, by James Kerr

Why I read it – six years ago, I was preparing to move on from a position I loved, Head of English, to the much-feared Head of Year role (there was nothing to worry about, it was a brilliant job!). I made it my mission to practise my public speaking, sharpen up my knowledge of the students’ names, and to read as many books as possible to support my assemblies, which, in my head, were going to be TED talk-esque, world beaters. Legacy was the first ‘leadership’ book that I read, and I got on the bandwagon just after it had come out. It is a widely-read book now, and has, I’m sure, provided many quotable moments for others as it did for me.  In fact, I am on my third copy: the first I lent to someone and have no recollection of who that was; the second copy I bought was lent to a friend, Hannah, who left it in the sun during her holiday in Turkey; it whitewashed and she kindly replaced it before breaking the news – I actually prefer battle-scarred books, but I now have a pristine, third copy.

My point is that, while it isn’t the most nuanced, Legacy travels well, and everyone can learn something from the 15 ideas proposed.

In summary

James Kerr studies 15 principles from the All Blacks (New Zealand’s Rugby team) to see what has made them so successful over the decades, whichever crop of players they have at their disposal. The book features countless examples of their values and identity, as well as interviews, and plenty of references to other leadership and performance books.

Each All Black principle has a chapter dedicated to it, complete with Māori proverbs (Whakataukī) which are wise and poetic in equal measure, as Kerr pays homage to the Māori identity and culture that runs through the organisation and country.

Key takeaways

  1. Sweep the sheds – the premise of this chapter is that the All Blacks clean up their changing room after every game, carry their own bags, and in their words ‘no one looks after the All Blacks, the All Blacks look after themselves’. As you can imagine, this commitment to cleaning and picking up rubbish was a wonderful discovery for a Head of Year 9, trying to convince 14-year-olds to leave the playground in a fit state. But the message goes far beyond that; it comes down to discipline, respect, and team identity. And if you’ve seen the state of football changing rooms after most matches, this attitude is certainly not the norm.
  2. Shared responsibility – when the All Blacks were going through a period of change, they decided to put more responsibility into the hands of the players. Leadership groups were formed, and senior players would have responsibility to set the tone and culture for the others. At the beginning of the week, management and the senior players would outline the plan for the build up to a match, and as the week went on, those players would take over responsibility for the preparation. As Kerr summarises, ‘shared responsibility means shared ownership. A sense of inclusion means individuals are more willing to give themselves to a common cause.
  3. No dickheads; follow the spearhead – yes, this is verbatim from the book! The Māori term Whānau means your family, your mates, your team – for that to move forward, everyone has to be pulling in the same direction. Kerr quotes the Arab proverb, ‘it’s better to have a thousand enemies outside the tent, than one inside’, then moves onto a similar Maori saying, before finally reflecting on the All Blacks’ mantra: no dickheads. Players are selected on character over talent. This is a team that will give everything for each other, with a collective identity and vision – everyone must buy into it.

Favourite quote

At the end of the book, Kerr includes the Whakataukī that have helped inform the principles and wisdom shared throughout Legacy. As I mentioned earlier, they are wise, poetic, and often profound.

And the one that really spoke to me as a person and leader?

Te timatanga o te matauranga ko te wahangū, te wāhanga tuarua ko te whakarongo

The first stage of learning is silence; the second stage is listening.

Favourite moment

My favourite chapter doesn’t generate soundbites as exciting as the ones above, but for me it is the most important. The twelfth principle, Language, explores communication, and in this case ‘inventing your own language’. Kerr discusses how important it can be for a team to have its own unique vocabulary, mottos, or principles, which are clearly and often communicated. It sews the team together, unites them under a common language, and gives them a sense of identity from the inside and the outside of the circle – in the way they perceive themselves and how others perceive them. There are plenty of examples from different industries, but in short Kerr sums it up with: ‘words start revolutions.’

Question and reflect

  • People and players come and go, but do we invest in our long-term identity and culture as a team or organisation? We must prioritise the values that are expected of, and last beyond, those in the team.
  • What characteristics do we value most from our staff and teammates? Have we thought and articulated what kind of personalities and values will be most welcome to promote the wider team ethos?
  • Have we established a common language that encompasses our culture and values? How can we take our mottos or vocabulary and utilise it to unite the team and create a clear set of principles? Then, communicate, communicate, communicate.

Read this if…

You want an insight into how an elite sports organisation creates a culture of purpose and togetherness

You like reading about a wide range of examples about teams from several industries

Support book shops and find it here

The Thinking School, by Dr Kulvarn Atwal

Why I read it – during the staff wellbeing research project I ran last year, my colleague Rachel and I were interested in Self Determination Theory, and one of its three pillars in particular: autonomy. We wanted to explore how, in professions with high accountability measures, you could still enable staff to thrive by giving them autonomy. I then heard about Dr Kulvarn Atwal on Twitter, and he kindly invited us to his school. We posted a blog about that visit here, a wonderful day hosted by Kulvarn and the fantastic Sandy Kaur. But the book is a must-read, too, for anyone who wants to consider how to help their staff thrive with trust, autonomy, and a commitment to learning.

In summary

Dr Atwal observes that to have a ‘thinking school’, everyone must be doing just that. Thinking, contributing, and learning. But often, a lack of learning culture, collaboration or autonomy means that staff don’t feel empowered or enabled to contribute to the whole-school journey, or to develop their learning. He suggests that the thinking school is one in which everyone is responsible for learning and teaching.

Much of the book focuses on how schools can move away from traditional approaches to CPD, and to make ‘teacher learning’ part of everyday culture. I’ll do my best to capture the ideas and enthusiasm, but keeping up with Kulvarn’s charisma and energy is tough!

Key takeaways

Most of my takeaways arise from the 8 activities that are suggested to create a dynamic learning community. That section of the book is wonderful and I really recommend you read it.

  1. Collaborative learning and working – Atwal cites research (including his own doctoral work) and interviews which suggest that teachers value working together in groups, as an effective and empowering form of development. In his school, Atwal’s staff gave me many examples of how they had split off into groups to work on research projects, joint planning, and similar, with trust and autonomy being the wind in their sails. It has made me rethink how schools can foster collaborative work across different teams, focused on curriculum planning, research projects, extra-curricular activities, student learning… the list could go on, but as Atwal says, it will develop a positive culture and high investment from staff.
  2. Coaching – one of my favourites ideas from the book, and the school itself, is that every staff member (not just teachers!) are given the opportunity to be coached, and to become a coach. The evidence behind coaching is exhaustive, but when the whole school is committed to the reflective and non-hierarchal nature of coaching as a form of development, it really can be something special.  
  3. Development: choice and time – the traditional model in school CPD (apologies for the generalisation) has been a CPD/INSET session one afternoon a week, where a member of staff has planned a programme for staff. There may be sign up sessions to offer some diversity, and in recent years, more evidence-informed practice. And CPD seems to be genuinely improving. But, The Thinking School asserts that we need to give teachers more time to learn, and we need to stop providing one-off sessions, which are often unrelated to the previous. Atwal gives teachers choice over what they learn about, the time, tools and encouragement to engage with research and conduct their own research, and even funding to execute these ideas or complete a masters; his staff are passionate about their development, and usually plump for learning centred around their classroom practice, which they then feedback to the whole staff, to have an impact on the learning of other children. Again, I met teachers at his school who had an idea about something they wanted to improve or learn about, let’s say reading assessments for example; they then had the autonomy and time to research and learn, test out their ideas, collaborate with other staff in the school, and then feedback. There was a tangible buzz in the air because the staff knew they were in control of their development, and in turn, how they could impact the children’s learning. I could say so much more, but I really suggest you read the book or speak to Kulvarn!

Favourite quote

‘Without autonomy you leave your brain at home’

Okay, I’ve cheated here. This quote (unless I’ve missed it) isn’t in the book itself. Rather, it was one of the opening quotes from Atwal when he presented to Rachel and me at his school. In our high pressure, high accountability-culture workplaces, sometimes we work relentlessly to do a good job in the systems that exist around us, without navigating beyond those. But when you work somewhere that encourages autonomy and empowers you to learn and work with your own ideas, it can foster a deep sense of purpose towards what you do. I may be wrong, but I think everyone wants to go to work, the work that they believe in, and use their experience, ideas and knowledge to make a big impact; they want to use their unique gifts to contribute in their own way. That’s what The Thinking School encourages, and I found that both challenging and inspirational.

Of course, when we are given autonomy, there is no guarantee of success, and no tried and tested route map if you pursue an original idea. But if you work in an environment that trusts, supports, encourages, empowers, and collaborates, it brings out the best in everyone to face challenges with togetherness and solutions.

Favourite moment

In the Leadership chapter, Atwal discusses a phrase that he uses throughout the book: ‘high challenge, high trust’. His vision is that the thinking school will be an environment where the staff work relentlessly hard to make sure the children get the best deal, but the mutual trust between them means that open dialogue is part of everyday life. Staff collaborate with leaders when writing new policies, leaders invite staff to contribute to ideas and initiatives. Some might comment that this seems like a boat without a rudder, but they would be mistaken. The leaders in a thinking school lead with integrity and trust; inviting staff to contribute isn’t a form of weakness, it encourages diverse thinking, loyalty, and greater staff buy in. Again, having witnessed this in Kulvarn’s school, it is thoroughly refreshing. Staff are encouraged to burst in with an idea, knowing that Kulvarn will talk it through with them (always asking first how it will benefit the children) and give them the chance to try it out and then evaluate.

Question and reflect

  • Do we commit enough time, energy, resources and autonomy to staff development? How can we encourage staff to embrace and love their pursuit of learning?
  • Schools are busy places, but we can give a much larger role to collaboration across departments, year groups, etc. – collaborative projects and CPD can build trust and positivity, and also unite diversely thinking groups.

Read this if…

You want to embrace autonomy within your workplace

You are looking to explore new ways of fostering long-term development of staff

Find the book here

Further reading:

Last year’s blog post on the NFER report on Teacher Autonomy

The Teacher Autonomy report itself from the NFER

Putting Staff First, by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley

Why I read it…  Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of school staff succumb to the seemingly inevitable notion that workload is high and many tasks are arbitrary, but you just keep chipping away and hobble along. You get the holidays, and teaching is fun; so you’ll tolerate the other crap. But the tide has turned – professional development has never been so high-quality, easy-to-access and purposeful. Leaders are now looking for ways to help staff thrive, and not merely survive. I’ve been on this journey as a leader, trying to cut through what works best for staff while maintaining high standards of education for the children. During last year’s staff wellbeing project I read Putting Staff First, and knew we were in good hands.

In summary:

Tomsett and Uttley combine their experience and wisdom to present the case for how we can recruit, train, and retain happy, expert, thriving teachers. The clue is in the title: every idea, angle, proposition in this book is about putting staff first. It’s not about Ofsted, attainment scores, or finances; the authors focus solely on how we can invest in our education workforce.

On reflection, whilst this book is clearly authored by two leaders in education, with the premise of ‘revitalising our schools’, the principles reach far beyond, to other industries.

Key takeaways:

  1. Put development at the heart of school culture – Tomsett pens the chapter on ‘teacher learning’, recalling an example of launching a CPD initiative for staff by giving them a book in an afterschool session, and then never following up – we’ve all been part of similar initiatives! But he then leads an exploration of long-term, purposeful CPD. Learning that is wide-ranging, given dedicated and plentiful time, that is evidence based, and tailored to subject, pedagogical and pastoral needs. I can think of no better way to improve student learning, staff expertise, motivation, and love of vocation more than thinking about this as a top priority, every day.  
  2. Workload – this is an essential chapter. The trick is to eliminate excessive tasks, and tasks that do not add value; in other words ‘do fewer things but do them better’. I particularly liked the way Uttley discusses how they invited staff and unions to bring issues along when they were developing their wellbeing charter, which he then provides for us with its key principles. Marking, meetings, emails, accountability culture, admin – everything we do should be scrutinised as we consider if it needlessly adds to workload.
  3. Recruitment and ‘cultural fit’ –  despite recruitment proving difficult in recent years, especially in some subjects, it’s vital that prospective staff members’ values align with the school. The school will be investing huge amounts in them over the years, and vice versa. Tomsett shows his ‘cultural fit’ page (added to the job ad) where he outlines the values of the school and its expectations of students and staff. This idea links to one of my takeaways in The Human Workplace, where Andy Swann argues that values should exceed ‘experience’ in recruitment. In a school’s case, Tomsett rightly points out that subject knowledge is key, too.

Favourite quote:

‘‘Students first’ is a misplaced sentiment. By putting staff first, you are on the way to providing for students the one thing that will help them make good progress in their learning: truly great teaching.’

Favourite moment:

Rather than singling out a specific moment in the book, as I usually would in these posts, what I love about Putting Staff First is the open, collaborative nature that the writers adopt. Yes, they dedicate pages to their own experiences and views. But they cite hundreds of other leaders, books, examples from beyond their own schools or roles. Uttley even writes a chapter about schools being at the heart of system-wide change, and it’s clear that the authors are dedicated to encouraging a ‘staff first blueprint’ across the country.

Question and reflect

  • Do we put everything on the table when we are thinking about staff wellbeing? Everything we ask teachers to do should be evaluated – does it help them to thrive and be better teachers?
  • Rather than have a vague ethos around looking after staff, should we create a tangible wellbeing charter? Staff can be part of the process of putting it together, which should ensure good buy in when it launches.
  • As leaders, have we moved beyond the ‘weekly CPD’ notion, to more firmly embed staff development at the heart of our day-to-day culture?

Read this if…

You want ideas about how to help teachers thrive

You want insights into the work of two principled, thoughtful leaders

Support bookshops and buy it here

Tribes, by Seth Godin

Why I read it…  In 2010, my friend Dave gave me a copy of Seth Godin’s Tribes while we were working on some business and philanthropic projects. I read it, found it fascinating, made notes, and then it went onto the shelf, hopefully influencing some of my decisions forthwith; in fact, it’s that passive process which prompted me to start this site. I recently re-read Tribes, and came across the final words: ‘Give this copy to someone else. Spread the word.’ Well, Mr Godin, Dave succeeded and I failed. I hope this post reaches at least as many people as would have benefitted from it if I had passed it on a decade ago.

In summary:

Godin is a marketing and business guru who has written an array of books and has an excellent, long-running blog. Tribes are described as a group of people connected to each other, a leader, and an idea. Godin sets out how in the 21st century, technology and shifting values have propelled individuals to be able to make a huge impact on society and business with modest resources; we can become leaders of tribes with an idea, courage, and initiative alone, if we so choose.

Rather than dividing the book thematically or with a certain narrative (Godin himself acknowledges the book’s organisation), Tribes is a series of headings, hundreds of them, each offering a paragraph or page-long insight into a thought about leadership. Usually I enjoy order and sections (!), but here every page is a surprise, every heading prompts a different reaction; many resonated, some didn’t. But each one evoked the feeling that I was sat with Godin as he unleashed his wisdom over a coffee.

Key takeaways:

I’ve picked out a small number of headings to get you started. I should add that these ideas were penned in 2008, and that it is not Godin who is late to the party, but I, in sharing them 12 years later.

  1. Something to believe in – tribes, Godin argues, are about faith – about belief in an idea and a community, and are grounded in respect and admiration for the leader and the group. Do you believe in what you do? Every day? These days, more people are turning to the things in their lives that they can believe in, for instance when they buy products or apply for a job – the factory-centred model of churning out products or services for profit alone, doesn’t satisfy and will no longer suffice.
  2. Scott Beale’s Party when Scott Beale got tired of lining up for a Google after-party at a conference, he went to a bar, fired up Twitter and started his own party. Eight people arrived, then fifty, and then his party had the line. Scott didn’t wait for permission, authority, or an existing audience.
  3. Curiosity counts – curiosity comes naturally to some, but is nurtured in others over years as they find themselves and their voice. Whether you are broadening your own experience and wisdom, or seeking out new or alternative views, curiosity can drive change.
  4. How to create a micro movement Godin explores 11 different ideas, some of which include: create and publish your own manifesto, make it easy for your tribe to communicate with you and each other, realise that money is not the point of a movement / idea, remember that transparency is key, and that the movement should be bigger than you.
  5. Charisma – a 2015 programme on BBC Radio 4, The New Corinthians, presented research that shows how banking on the ‘charisma’ of a leader, actually leads to some toxic and counterproductive traits. Godin gets in first in this 2008 reflection: ‘being charismatic doesn’t make you a leader. Being a leader makes you charismatic.’
  6. Elements of Leadership – these include: leaders challenge the status quo, have an extraordinary amount of curiosity, communicate their vision of the future, connect their followers to one another, create a culture around their goal and involves other in that culture. Godin also proposes that you don’t need to be powerful in an organisation to lead, but committed.

Favourite quote:

‘Every tribe is different. Every leader is different. The very nature of leadership is that you’re not doing what’s been done before. You can choose to lead, or not. You can choose to have faith, or not. You can choose to contribute to the tribe, or not. Once you choose to lead, you’ll be under huge pressure to reconsider your choice, to compromise, to dumb it down, or to give up. That’s the world’s job: to get you to be quiet and follow. But once you choose to lead, you’ll discover it’s not so difficult.’

Favourite moment:

Godin champions each and every one of us to lead. If we have an idea and belief, we can create a tribe, a movement, and change the world. Under the heading ‘Leading from the Bottom’, he challenges the notion that without authority, you can’t lead.

Godin cites the story of Thomas Barnett, who was a Department of Defence researcher in the US, when he created a huge PowerPoint of musings which addressed defence and the threats of the post-9/11 world. Without ‘authority’ or a place in the upper hierarchy of the Pentagon, he lead with ideas that brought a welcome wave of change and a tribe of people eager to embrace it. Soon the Pentagon hierarchy were consulting him, and he wrote books about his view of international defence strategies. One person suddenly becomes a key figure, and our tribes give us the same opportunity. Skill, attitude, experience, courage, ideas are essential – authority is not. Any of us can take the lead and make change.

Question and reflect

  • I was really challenged and motivated by Godin urging the reader not to wait for authority, resources, or permission to pursue an idea or change. Do we spend too long seeking status or ‘value’ before we chase our dream?
  • Tribes dedicates a lot of time to exploring how a group and leader are built on the belief of an idea. I wonder if we spend enough time reflecting on our own values, beliefs and ideas, instead of accepting or following ones that others have already put in place?

Read this if…

You like many-a-musing from a writer who knows his mind and shares a breadth of ideas

You want a variety of perspectives on leadership, teams, and making change.

The Human Workplace, by Andy Swann

Why I read it…  In autumn 2019, I launched a staff wellbeing research project with a colleague, and we were pointed in the direction of the Relationships Foundation. They were a source of inspiration and knowledge; one of their recommendations was The Human Workplace by Andy Swann, which is a worthy starting point if you’re reflecting on how to build an organisation that promotes connection, relationships and a thriving environment for staff.

In summary:

Swann challenges the reader to review what we deem as success in our work. Results and output? Or putting people first? He defines a human workplace in a few ways: commitment to people and their development; having a clear mission; focus on long-term development through creativity; a safe place to collaborate and communicate openly; being sensitive to the wellbeing and connection of those to the organisation.

Unlike many books of this type, Swann doesn’t rely upon lengthy anecdotes; instead, he includes brief case studies throughout, which are isolated on the page, and are supplementary to his lengthy reflections and guidance.

Key takeaways:

Swann leads a nuanced and comprehensive discussion, devoid of catchy soundbites. This has made it tricky to provide takeaways without sounding vague and cliché – hopefully they will pique your interest enough to read the book!

  1. Connecting with people –many organisations are starting to harness the power of being people-focused. But it has to be authentic. Words are not enough. The organisation must create an environment where people are valued and trusted. How? Well, the book provides plenty of insights, but my key takeaways are: giving staff more autonomy in their work; fostering an environment to share ideas and collaborate – diverse and innovative thinking is only produced in safe places; keeping open platforms of communication. There’s so much I could say here, but, in short, Swann says that in a human organisation ‘enabling people is the only requirement.’
  2. Why change fails – a study in 2008 showed that 70% of change initiatives in workplaces fail. The reasons are interesting: 39% employee resistance; 33% management behaviour; 14% resources / budget; 14% other reasons. Put simply, the overwhelming reasons for change failing aren’t how it is resourced, but a lack of connection between staff and organisation, or the communication/behaviour of the organisation to inspire that connection. Before we try to change, perhaps we should fix connection and mission.
  3. Recruiting with purpose – we tend to create job adverts with detailed specifications of skills, experience, qualifications. But Swann proposes that workers who feel genuine connection with their organisation, and in turn have high morale, will contribute far more than those who have been hired solely for the skills or experience. Therefore, workplaces should look at how to prioritise hiring those whose values are aligned to their own.

Favourite quote:

‘We lump the idea of a business and an organisation together as a single entity. But it’s time for clarity. Your business is what you do. Your organisation is how you do it.’

Swann argues that your business tangibly exists: it’s legally registered, has a shipping address, and a set of products and services. But your organisation is entirely of your own making. How will you structure your organisation, create mission, purpose and connection, in the pursuit of serving your business? I found this contrast really useful: what your business is and does, doesn’t have to reflect the way you create the organisation – any workplace can be people-focused and mission-driven, whether you save lives every day, or sell paperclips.

Favourite moment:

One of Swann’s brief case studies is a focus on Lego and how they created the New Ways of Working (NWOW) programme to increase engagement and relatedness across the company. This included: integrating Lego history and the sense of brand across the company to help staff buy into their values and mission; redesigning work spaces with innovation in mind, so that staff could be creative with the environment they worked within; bringing previously disconnected departments together for collaboration and projects so that a sense of the company’s values and mission became aligned, increasing a sense of togetherness, perspective and identity.

Question and reflect

  • We often focus on what we do, in terms of output: school exam results, sales in a business, number of interactions or users. But can we separate business and organisation, to create our own unique mission, values, and connection with the people we work with?
  • We all say that we care about our staff. Of course we care about them; they might become our friends, we connect with their lives, we often see them more than our own family! But do we demonstrate this care through our actions? Whether that’s championing their development, giving them more autonomy, or providing an open platform for them to share and contribute – don’t talk about it, act on it.

Read this if…

You are reflecting on how we can create mission, purpose, and relatedness in your organisation

You want to engage with a writer who is less interested in soundbites and stories, and more in the substance behind how we can have a huge impact on the lives of those we work with

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why I read it…  After years of trying to crack the nut of students revising independently, I decided to read about the science behind how we form habits. However, I was keen to skip the fad-like, motivational angle that many books about habit take; you know, the writers who promise they will break your worst habits with 3 simple steps and a can-do attitude. Charles Duhigg combines his well-honed writing as a reporter for the New York Times, with a commitment to studying scientific research, to bring us a thoroughly technical, yet readable and enjoyable, exploration of habits. That’s why it got my vote.

In summary:

Duhigg sets out to review research, as I have alluded to, and then contextualises these findings in both hypothetical scenarios, and in real-world examples. What I admire about Duhigg’s book is that he isn’t trying to peddle his own brand of habit-busting snake oil. He accepts that there isn’t one formula to break a habit, levelling with the reader that there is much to explore. Therefore, he doesn’t patronise us with oversimplification, but lets us in on the complexity – relying on his fluent prose and range of examples to sustain our curiosity and interest.

Key takeaways:

  1. Habit forming in 3 steps: Cue, Routine, Reward. Duhigg bases much of the book on the MIT research on the neurological loop that forms habits. The cue, or prompt to do something; followed by the routine, which is the action you perform; and finally the reward, perhaps a feeling or a physical reward for the action, which tells your brain if it was worth it, and if forming a habit would be worthwhile. The more this loop repeats, the quicker and easier it becomes, and therefore a habit is formed.
  2. Habit forming reduces brain effort. A study of rats being released into a maze to find chocolate revealed that, at first, their brain activity was at a high capacity while they figured out the route. Over time, their brain activity significantly reduced as the routine became habit. This is why we can, with practice, reverse our car out of the drive, or do other seemingly complex tasks, while we think about other things. In other words, forming habits is a brilliant way to free up our brains to engage elsewhere.
  3. Habit forming and willpower can improve with kindness, positivity and autonomy – this one sang to me. Duhigg cites a study where participants’ willpower and performance improved when they were greeted and treated warmly. Similarly, many workplaces have found that employees who are given greater autonomy form efficient, lasting habits. The takeaway here is that emotional association and sense of identity can contribute to how we form good habits. Now, that’s exciting.
  4. Keystone Habits (see my favourite moment below). This term refers to how we can identify certain habits in our lives, that either exist currently, or could exist, that are so productive and important, that they can create a series of other good decisions and habits: a chain reaction.

Favourite quote:

‘Alcoholics Anonymous forces participants to create new routines for what to do each night instead of drinking. You can relax and talk through your anxieties at meetings. The triggers and rewards stay the same, but the behaviour changes’ 

Of course, habit and addiction are interlinked. Studies throughout suggest it is very difficult to stop your brain feeling the ‘cue’ to do something; equally, a reward or positive feeling is hard to change. But if you change the routine, you can accept that the cue and reward may stay the same. At AA, the members may feel the cue to drink, but they replace the drinking (routine) with talking. Duhigg and these studies aren’t claiming that we can eradicate unwanted cues from popping into our head, but by changing the routine, we can transform the habit into something else.

Favourite moment:

How did Paul O’Neill transform Alcoa (Aluminium firm) when he took over as CEO? Exciting innovation? Charisma? No, he stipulated that all safety procedures in their factories must be changed. It became an obsessive review to make sure that the health and safety protocols were followed properly. The consequence? Well, the company’s productivity and value sky rocketed. It was in getting this ‘keystone habit’ right, that many others fell into place.

Question and reflect

  • Let’s look at some of our daily habits – can we identify the cue, routine and reward, and use that knowledge to either improve those habits, change them, or to replicate into other healthy habits?
  • What keystone habits could we reflect upon, or create, in order to improve other areas of productivity or success in our lives? As a teacher, I think basic classroom routines at the start of a lesson, for example, are keystone habits to then improve attitude to learning, mutual respect, etc. well beyond that part of the students’ day. One good habit spawns another.

Read this if…

You want to understand how we can form or change habits

You like a good mix of anecdotal evidence, scientific research, and brilliant writing

Support bookshops and buy it here

Retrieval Practice, by Kate Jones

Why I read it…  Quizzing and retrieval practice was, I suppose, an instinctive part of my teaching without knowing much about the benefits, or how to properly use the concepts. In 2016, I became exposed to a wave of research through conferences and books, which I’ve been pursuing ever since. The elements of retrieval practice (the act of recalling learned information from memory) were of high interest to me, so I was delighted when Kate Jones released this book to high acclaim. And it is worth all of the praise!

In summary:

Firstly, if you’re not familiar with the term or concept, retrieval practice is the act of recalling information from memory, and indeed attempting to strengthen that original memory. As Jones quotes from Robert Bjork, ‘using your memory, shapes your memory’. If we want to learn and remember things for the long term, to be recalled at will, it is essential that we strengthen these memories through our teaching approaches and tasks. Here, the term retrieval practice encompasses the various, evidence-based methods we can use in the classroom (and outside, for non teachers!) to improve our ability to remember and recall information.

You could be forgiven for assuming that retrieval practice, or its key concepts, might just about fill a single blog post. But Jones proves how multi-faceted and complex retrieval practice can and should be. It is not merely starting your lesson with a quiz, or indeed a standalone topic; it feeds into all elements of our teaching, and is all part of that great ecosystem of learning.

Jones has researched the book brilliantly; the first 74 pages cover what research suggests about retrieval practice, breaking down different studies and the views of experts. Once we arrive at retrieval task ideas, we understand the concept well enough to appreciate HOW they will aid student learning, and how to use retrieval practice in a variety of ways.

Key takeaways:

  1. This is part of the puzzle, not THE puzzle. While Jones demonstrates how retrieval practice links to everything we do in the classroom, she is clear that it is not a silver bullet alone. The handy infographic on chapter one is an excellent visual display of how it is just one piece of the puzzle.
  2. Low effort, high impact. Sustainability is important for teachers; regardless of impact on learning, strategies that we adopt must not be onerous in planning or delivery. Jones discusses a shift during her career (that many of us can relate to) from cumbersome planning for tasks, to focusing on tasks that are easy to create and adapt for future use. The ideas in the book reflect this principle: low effort, high impact.
  3. Involve everyone – here, Jones cites Tom Sherrington and his advice that our retrieval tasks, unlike questioning of individual students, or checking a couple of students’ work, should involve all of the class. How? By creating tasks that allow students to access the answers after, and / or self-check them. Then the whole class can compare their understanding or knowledge to the answers, rather than us unwittingly checking the knowledge of a few. The tasks provided in this book adhere to the ‘involve everyone’ principle.

Favourite quote:

It’s a salad analogy, because it made me chuckle, and because it makes perfect sense!

‘Just like a one-off salad won’t change your physique, a one-off retrieval quiz won’t guarantee information can be retrieved from long-term memory. Retrieval practice, like exercise, must be consistent, regular and the level of challenge should be appropriate with desirable difficulties. A salad alone does not make up a healthy diet, in the same sense that retrieval practice shouldn’t be used as the only strategy to support teaching and learning.’

Favourite moment:

My favourite thing about this book is that Jones constantly reflects on how retrieval practice can be used in conjunction with other deliberate teaching methods. You feel as though you’re learning a huge amount about one topic (which you might expect when you buy a book on it!), but the real thrill is that you’re actually learning about so many other disciplines, areas of research, and methods of teaching. Retrieval Practice is packed with wisdom, research, practical ideas, and the voices of many experts.

Question and reflect

  • When we make retrieval quizzes and recap prior knowledge, do we understand how multi-faceted retrieval practice can be, and vary our tasks accordingly?
  • Have we prioritised the concepts of retrieval practice so that they are an integral part of our curriculum and planning?
  • Are we using retrieval practice to help our students improve their ability to self-test and recall their knowledge independently? We can design and explain tasks that students are able to use on their own, to keep the amazing benefits of retrieval practice alive when they are outside of our lessons.

Read this if…

You want to find out more about how a range of educational research can fit into sensible and sustainable teaching methods, particularly on retrieval practice

You want to find a wide-ranging bank of resources that link to, and build upon, the theory you learn in the first half of the book

You want to improve your teaching. Simple as that!

Support bookshops and buy it here

Make Your Bed, by Admiral William H. McRaven

Why I read it…   You might have seen the videos of Admiral William H. McRaven delivering a Commencement Speech at the University of Texas in 2014. It is perfect assembly fodder: here are links to the full speech, and the slightly dramatized version.  I don’t delve into works by armed forces personnel often, but I enjoyed his delivery style and the simplicity of his message; when I realised he had turned the concepts of the speech into a short book, I bought a copy for myself and each member of the Senior Leadership Team when I departed my previous school last summer.

In summary:

McRaven outlines 10 principles to live your life by, based on his long and distinguished career in the US Navy. Each principle is a bit of a cliché, but what some of them lack in originality, they make up for in clarity and authenticity. He uses many anecdotes from his career; not eye-bulging, macho-military stories, but tales of connection, spirit, and hope.

Key takeaways:

  1. Start your day with a task completed: this is where the title of the book comes from: in the military, you begin the day by making your bed. Starting the day with a task completed, McRaven argues, gives you a small sense of pride, and encourages you to complete another task; your day quickly becomes filled with many tasks completed, and teaches you that the little things matter. And whatever kind of day you have, you return home to a made bed!
  2. You can’t go it alone. McRaven spends a lot of the book talking about the importance of team work and community, often citing how, when members of a team struggle, the others need to pick up the slack and cover for them, knowing that it will be done for them in return when they need it. I wonder if we always treat our team mates with the same level of unwavering support?
  3. Don’t ring the bell – in the centre of the SEAL Training compound, there is a brass bell. Whenever you want to quit the training programme, just go and ring the bell. The instructors even encourage you to, knowing that there will be far greater temptations to quit when the SEALs are out in the field. McRaven encourages us to face up to our most challenging moments, and to never, ever, ring the bell, however tempting it seems at that moment.

Favourite quote:

Describing the ‘munchkin crew’ full of the shortest cadets in the cohort: ‘the other crews would make fun of the tiny little flippers they put on their tiny little feet. But somehow these guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh, swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us. SEAL Training was a great equalizer; nothing mattered but your will to succeed.’

Favourite moment:

During Hell Week, Navy SEAL cadets are punished with a series of gruelling tasks; one of which involves them spending the night in the mud and water, freezing half to death. If they want to quit, all they have to do is ask. Many do. McRaven depicts the moment when the group of cadets are at breaking point, and some are beginning to crawl towards the instructors. And then a voice rises in the wind; a cadet is singing. The group begins to join in; they link arms, knuckle down, and find solidarity and strength in communal song.

Question and reflect

  • The bonds that service members seem to forge are quite profound; most of our jobs aren’t so high stakes, but can we improve our sense of community and shared responsibility as a team?
  • The ‘make your bed’ mantra is simple but effective; what habits can we work into our morning routines to start the day with a task completed? Admittedly, mine is walking the dog, which feels like a win at the moment!
  • What I loved about the speech that the book is based upon, is the spirit and pride that McRaven possesses when he speaks to these college students. I wonder, if you or I were going to deliver such a speech, what words of hope and inspiration from our lives would we offer?

Read this if…

You like concise, easy to follow motivational books

You are planning to share simple, effective strategies to motivate young people (the speech is great for assemblies!)

Support bookshops and buy it here

I Can’t Accept Not Trying, by Michael Jordan

Why I read it…  I’m a huge NBA, Michael Jordan, and Space Jam (yes, that’s right) fan, and that was compounded in 2020 with the excellent documentary The Last Dance, on Netflix. Jordan doesn’t go out of his way to ingratiate himself with the public or his team mates, but his dedication to honing his craft is unparalleled.

In summary:

A very concise (36 pages) guide, written in 1994, about what it takes to become the best. Michael Jordan shares the golden rules that he has lived his life by, and what it lacks in filler, it certainly makes up in clear, focused guidance that can be transferred to any industry, any level of performance, or indeed any aspect of our lives.

The title hints at what is to come: Jordan recognises that talent isn’t bought, but his career was based on working harder than anyone else, always taking the shot, and being pragmatic and diligent in his quest for improvement. He expects the same of those around him.

Key takeaways:

  1. Dream big, but achieve it in small steps – Jordan advocates high ambitions, but cautions the reader that without a series of small steps, big dreams become intimidating, and gradual progress feels disheartening. He discusses how he would construct small, achievable goals, with success in each providing motivation and satisfaction that the dream is one step closer.
  2. Fear is an illusion – this chapter title could be mistaken for a machismo soundbite, but Jordan does not deny or belittle fear. He likens fear to a barrier that you create: ‘you think something is standing in your way, but nothing is really there.’
  3. There are no short cuts – Jordan played as hard in practice as he played in the games (seen in The Last Dance) and expected the same of others. He seems incredulous that some can expect to practice or prepare with less intensity than when they need to perform in the real thing; he argues that you can’t turn commitment on or off like a tap, so you’d better keep it running!
  4. Master the fundamentals – no matter how successful Jordan became, he stuck to this mantra: constantly honing and mastering the basics of the game. Sometimes success and ambition can be a distraction; sometimes you can perform well for a time with a hot streak and a bit of luck. But working on the fundamentals will ensure long-lasting success and keep you going when other things ebb and flow.

Favourite quote:

‘Find fuel in any failure. Sometimes failure gets you closer to where you want to be. If I’m trying to fix a car, every time I try something that doesn’t work, I ‘m getting closer to finding the answer.’

Favourite moment:

Jordan is infamous for being one of the best basketball players of all time, and certainly the most well known. But he spends more time in the book discussing team work than anything else. He dedicates his most passionate words to how his Bulls worked as a team, won as a team, overcame more talented opposition as a team. For all of the critics who say he was difficult to play with, or an overly demanding teammate, this section of the book is a lesson for all readers: ignore placing individuals on pedestals, and celebrate how we can achieve things in teams.

Question and reflect

  • When we make a resolution or a target for ourselves, do we lay the ground work for this dream by plotting out the small steps that will take us to our goal?
  • What do we fear? Why does this fear exist? By thinking about our preparation and the opportunity in front of us, how can we overcome the barriers that we create?
  • We make commitments. We make dreams. But do we follow up with the same level of commitment and intensity every day, or just for the ‘big games’?

Read this if…

You want a concise, passionate guide about to how to develop an area of your life

You want to cut through the filler that so many books include, and just hear some experience and wisdom from the horse’s mouth.

I’m going to say it: read this if you are fan of Michael Jordan

Find it here

Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, by Jacqueline Novogratz

Why I read it… I’ve been an admirer of Jacqueline Novogratz ever since I read her book The Blue Sweater in 2010, and her amazing work with Acumen, a non-profit which creates sustainable solutions to poverty through investing in businesses and championing those who might not ordinarily receive support or finance. Her ‘Manifesto for a Moral Revolution’ sounded like the playbook I needed to connect with how I can contribute to the world like she has.

In summary

Novogratz details many experiences from her time with Acumen and beyond, sharing her own trips and adventures across the world, but just as importantly, we hear about many others, usually from developing countries, who have committed their life to making impactful changes to their community. They toil and push through all kinds of barriers with a relentless pursuit of success for themselves and those around them.

Within and between these anecdotes, Novogratz turns to us, the reader, and guides us to reflect on our own passions and moral compass, offering insights about how we too can take the right steps to make a change to our own world, and by consequence, the wider world. I defy anyone to close this book and ignore the final words: ‘The world is waiting for you.’

Key takeaways

I can’t possibly adhere to my rule of concise, 500-word book write ups and do this book justice, but here are 3 takeaways to start with!

  1. Don’t be despondent about incremental success: purposeful, worthwhile, long-term projects will hit snags along the way. They will fail. Look at your successes, however small, and use those to keep building. As Seth Godin writes ‘persistent people are able to visualise light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it’.
  2. Moral imagination – Novogratz discusses how wanting to be a changemaker isn’t simple or a one-off moment of self-gratification, reminiscing about an occasion at college when she naively donated to a charity without understanding the cause or the people involved. Moral imagination, she proposes, means connecting with people and systemic issues, and truly understanding causes of problems before we rush in to ‘solve’ them.
  3. Success is all around us, depending on how we define it – despite us being status-seeking beings, we can define success in healthier ways: our children’s happiness, putting someone before us, the causes we fight for, but how about a new model of success: did you put more into the world than you took out of it?

Favourite quote

This is a struggle. Novogratz has packed this book full of wisdom and experience. She doesn’t go out of her way to write in soundbites, but you could choose 5 inspirational quotes from every page; they emanate from her reflection and experience.

‘You may not yet have a crystal-clear sense of your purpose. That’s okay. It will grow with you. But if you have an inkling that you’d like your life to be about something bigger than yourself, listen to that urge. Follow the thread. The world needs you. Just start’

Favourite moment

My favourite chapter is ‘Accompany Eachother’ which reflects on the Jesuit notion that we ‘live and walk’ with those we serve. Several examples are given of when Novogratz, or others, connect with people to understand them and support them in their goals, standing with them during tough times and prosperous success. This accompaniment takes time, but, as she reflects: ‘I will hold a mirror to you and show you your value, bear witness to your suffering and to your light. And over time, you will do the same for me, for within the relationship lies the promise of our shared dignity and mutual encouragement needed to do the hard things.’   Wow.

Question and reflect

  • Have we thought about our moral purpose, and how we can make an impact on the world around us?
  • What is our perception of success? Are we doing enough to serve others, to enable their success?
  • ‘Each day we wake up to another chance to change the world’ – what step can we take today?

Read this if…

You want to gain a perspective of people around the world who are fighting to change themselves and their communities for the better

You want to reflect on your life, your choices, and how you can do more to change the world

You want to take Novogratz’ principles of redefining success, working through failure, accompanying others, and many other lessons, and apply them to your own life of workplace.

Find it here

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey

Why I read it…  this was actually a Christmas present! But I have followed McConaughey’s career in the post-romantic comedy years as he has flexed his skills more in works like True Detective and Interstellar. I’ve always found him intelligent and reflective, and then I heard him on two podcasts: Dr Chatterjee and the High Performance Podcast and appreciated his Kerouac-style musings. So this was a pleasant surprise.

In summary:

This is an autobiography: ranging from early life, formative adolescent moments, life, career. However, where it differs from your average chronological memoir, is that McConaughey dedicates his life stories to picking out the Greenlights, those moments or ideals that propelled him forward.

While narrating his life events (in poetic and impressive fashion), he regularly pauses to reflect on what these moments taught him, and indeed can teach the reader. Sure, he dips into his work, but we spend more time in the wilderness or out on the road.

Key takeaways:

  1. Connection – you can tell from one interview that McConaughey is charming and charismatic; his energy is a draw. But he values true connection, whether that be with people he has worked for, or trailer park residents where he hitches up his trailer when he tours the country. He seems to go all in and fosters long-term, stare deeply into their soul, connection.
  2. Reflect on your evolution – when McConaughey could feel the lures of fame, he went to a monastery and met brother Christian, who gave him a listening ear. When he felt his roles becoming stale, he thought about what he wanted from his career, rejected lucrative offers and took a risk to reinvent himself. We could all benefit from a bit of discernment about who we are, and where we are going.
  3. Pinpoint your Greenlights – the book title is important, as McConaughey celebrates the moments in his life where he moved forward. He reflects on these ‘greenlights’ – how they occurred and what they lead to. Perhaps we should think about important moments and decisions in our lives that moved us forward.

Favourite quote: ‘I haven’t made all A’s in the art of livin, but I give a damn, and I’ll take an experienced C over an ignorant A any day’

Favourite moment:

When he was 18, McConaughey spent a year living in Australia as part of an exchange programme. The anecdotes are hilarious, but as throughout, there is a more profound reflection at play.  The risk of getting away and out into another culture are admirable for any young person, but it is the formation of his identity while he is there that is really worth reading about. The quiet nights, unfamiliar surroundings and lack of community (at first) force McConaughey to confront who he is and who he wants to become, and it really spoke to my 17-year-old self.

Question and reflect

  • In our busy lives, do we find our own ‘brother Christian’ who sits and listens to us, and helps us recalibrate?
  • Do we make brave choices or take risks, in order to stay true to who we are and our values?
  • When you come to reflect on your life, which connections and tales will you be proud to tell?

Read this if…

You like reading poetic, honest, self-deprecating, humorous and often profound reflections

Find it here

The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

Why I read it… As part of a research project I was doing on staff wellbeing, I researched Self Determination Theory, a model which explores human needs. I wanted to experience these ideas in a workplace setting, and learn from other industries about how they create thriving cultures that allow people to belong and develop.

In summary:

The opening page informs us (if your Latin is rusty) that ‘culture’ comes from ‘cultus’, meaning care. That piece of etymology was a huge relief for me; this is what I was looking for.

Coyle draws upon a range of teams, industries and research studies to ponder how we can create healthy, purposeful cultures in our workplaces. He weaves in anecdotes and examples but also goes back to reflect with his own ideas, finishing each section with action points. Clean prose, well-researched ideas.

Key takeaways:

  1. Build safety – how much time and effort do we put into making sure our staff know that they belong? Coyle looks at studies of teams to see how the healthiest teams work together, and their sense of safety within the group counted for a lot: were they confident to contribute? Were they encouraged to throw big ideas out there? Had bad apples been eliminated from the team? Were the team thanked enough? This part of the book resonated most for me and has steered my thinking about how we build team cultures based on trust and opportunity.
  2. Shared vulnerability – leaders should ask questions, admit when they aren’t an expert in a certain domain, and seek help and counsel. ‘I screwed that up’ are the most important words a leader can say.
  3. Find your purpose, then over communicate it. Coyle examines how sometimes organisations can stray away from their mission and vision, getting bogged down in the day to day. Sometimes it takes a conscious realignment: what’s our purpose? How are we focused on it? Does everyone know it / understand it? Well, let’s keep telling them about it!

Favourite quote: ‘Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do’.

Favourite moment: Greg Popovich is used a few times in the ‘belonging’ section of the book. A slightly maverick NBA coach with a reputation as a volcanic bulldog with regards his temper, Coyle discusses how Popovich manages to have sky-high expectations of his players, whilst building excellent relationships with them. We hear how he has close proximity with his players when giving them feedback, how he takes an interest in their lives, and fascinatingly, how he uses team meetings (usually for basketball strategy and tactics) to teach and discuss other topical issues, in order to educate his players and promote wider interests. Coyle then links Popovich’s feedback style to an evidence-based approach, which includes 3 powerful ideas to include when developing people: ‘you belong to this group’, ‘this group is special’, and ‘I have high standards that I believe you can reach’.

Question and reflect

  • How can we enable our staff to be creative, autonomous and to feel trusted?
  • As leaders, are we prepared to share our vulnerabilities and what we don’t know? Do we ask for help?
  • What conditions can we create to help make our teams as effective as possible?

Read this if…

You are reflecting on culture within your organisation or team

You want to see a range of examples of healthy, thriving teams across many industries and professions

Find it here