4 school leader lessons from The Dude

Neil Jones

I have been involved in education for 25 years as teacher, school leader, governor and inspector. After 23 years in prep schools, with 10 as a head, I have recently taken up the role leading a new Free School. I am fascinated by the way in which people of all ages learn and how we can blend new technology with good communication to strengthen our practice as educators.

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Images credit: The Big Lebowski // Working Title Films. Images credit: The Big Lebowski // Working Title Films.

I come to write this piece after a brief Twitter exchange, a shared appreciation of the 1998 Coen brothers cult classic The Big Lebowski, with Innovate My School editor James Cain, Emerging from our ensuing conversation was the idea of an article to explore what lessons in leadership, if any, might be gleaned from Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski. Despite my love of the movie, and my interest in leadership lessons from art as well as life, at first it felt a little like scraping the bottom of the metaphor barrel. However, after some reflection, I came to the conclusion that perhaps there is something in the movie that may be worth sharing...

Jeff Lebowski, ‘The Dude’ or just ‘Dude’ has his rug stolen. For one reason or another he is determined to get it back. However, he doesn’t quite have the wherewithal to overcome the challenges that subsequently befall him - a hoax kidnap and ransom demand, being fooled into getting a famous artist pregnant, false imprisonment, the loss of his beloved car, being drugged and facing his bowling league’s best pairing. Yet ultimately The Dude overcomes all of this with the help (and often hindrance) of his friends, by sticking his core purpose and maintaining a simple philosophy expressed in his last line from the movie:

“Yeah, well...The Dude abides…"

Drawing leadership or life lessons from movies is not always the most sensible or objective thing to do. Yet it does enable us to reflect on themes that are germane to our roles. Exploring other narratives, other writing or other people’s experiences, real or imagined, enables us to hold a mirror up to our own. So, possibly for the first time ever, here are four leadership lessons from The Dude.

1. Accept and value varied team characteristics

The Dude has two friends: the potentially sensible but undervalued Donny, and the bellicose, belligerent, know-it-all Walter. With them he is able to retrieve his rug, which is all he wants to do, and extricate himself from the predicaments in which he inadvertently finds himself.

Marshalling our teams is about balancing the contrasting characters we find. The team around you is, and ought to be, varied in character. Different perspectives ensure challenges find solutions through ‘responsible“Ultimately The Dude overcomes all of this with the help of his friends.” dissent’. Allowing views to be shared respectfully is important. However, it is vital to come to a decision and move forward. Over the first half term of this school year, we have been reviewing our values as a school. After canvassing opinion from children, staff, parents and governors, a very long list of rich values was drawn up. In one final staff meeting, after six weeks of consultation, we revised and revised this list until we were down to twelve words. So with a final push and a great deal of discussion, including heated debate about the merit of “resilience" over “determination”, "tolerance" as opposed to "compassion", we emerged with six.

“Perseverance, Resilience, Aspiration, Pride, Respect, Curiosity.”

Now these six words will define us as a community, provide a framework for all we strive to do, and stand as a representation of all of our shared views. Through the process everyone has participated, from the outspoken to the reticent; from the reluctant to the ones who believe they know the answers. We are confident that these values will last because they have been so widely discussed and their meaning so well understood.

2. Maintain a clear, relentlessly communicated vision

Stick to the core purpose: your vision. All Dude wanted was his rug back, which he eventually achieved, although not before diversions and others’ interests tried to get in the way. Donny wasn’t assertive enough, and Walter too bullish, to ever achieve what they thought was best.

Our role as a leader is to consistently articulate the vision for the school (a family school where we can share the wonder with our children, a strong community that builds towards a better future for all, for example) and enable our teams to deliver with that vision - the “why”, as Simon Sinek puts it. In my first role as a head, we adopted as our vision statement ‘A Good Start Never Stops’. This phrase was already used by our head of Early Years, and adopting it for the whole school made perfect sense: What else are the Primary years all about other than to provide foundations for the rest of a child’s life? By using this regularly in all communication, conversations with parents, newsletters, public speeches, it became a mantra that everyone understood. It was our rug!

3. Be willing to adapt your plan

"No plan survives contact with the enemy,” stated Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. Which means, on a less martial note in terms of school leadership, if we know where we’re heading - the vision, the why - how important is travelling a precisely detailed route? Jeff Lebowski was thrown into a beguiling situation by The Big Lebowski himself, and had to consistently adapt his point-of-view in order to figure out the truth.

No matter how hard you try, the best laid plans will need to be reassessed at some point. Rigid adherence to a plan that is not working can only result in frustration and weakening of relationships. “SLT cannot let pressure be transferred to unsuspecting teachers.”For example, some years ago I had the opportunity to implement an entirely new curriculum for our Humanities and Arts, tying everything very nicely together (supposedly) with fantastically inspiring themes. After two terms it was becoming clear that a) it was too challenging to resource, and b) we hadn’t committed enough in terms of CPD.

What we did decide was that we would adopt the elements we really liked, varying our teaching styles and planning, to retain the best of the curriculum. Ultimately, we had to be brave enough to say “this isn’t working, pupils aren’t making progress, staff are frustrated” and review and change our plan. Problem? No. The resultant staff morale and quality of provision was greatly improved and an “excellent" judgement by the Independent Schools Inspectorate reinforced our decision.

4. Prepare yourself for the varied challenges of life in a school

In the final scene of the movie, The Dude is asked how things have been going. "Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes...you know... [the bar eats you]". Replace ‘bar’ with ‘bear’ in a mountain man drawl, and you get the meaning.

In the ten years I’ve been a head, staff, governors and parents have regularly presented issues that have been challenging. From pupil progress to professional development or the school’s finances, there have always been contrasting opinions. Apparently, you will not always be right or, more accurately, a different perspective from a different stakeholder will tell you a different story.

Recognising that perspectives will differ and challenge your own, is essential in maintaining the flexibility and agility that is required to achieve your ultimate aims. Which leads to The Dude’s final line, now a part of cult movie folklore and adorning t-shirts across the planet. When he is told to take it easy after all the trials and tribulations as he sets off for his bowling match, the reply is simple: “Yeah, well...The Dude abides.”

The narrator of the movie concludes for the audience that it is good know The Dude is out there, “taking her easy for all us sinners". And so with school leaders. While others feel the pressure of the classroom, the burden of assessment, planning and standards, senior leaders cannot let that pressure be expressed and transferred to unsuspecting middle management or hard-pressed classroom practitioners. We must be resilient, patient, tolerant; stick to the core purpose that we have set out to achieve. If we abide, we get through the challenging times recognising, as The Dude puts it, that life is “you know…strikes and gutters, ups and downs”.

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