Leadership by chocolate

When I started my first leadership role (Pastoral Care Coordinator) my Principal told me that ‘time is never wasted if you’re talking with someone.’ She went on to tell me that as a leader in the school, I had a responsibility for both staff and students. It was great advice – while my job description talked mostly about my interactions with students, it was obviously impossible to provide pastoral care for 1000 students on my own. I had to have the staff with me. It was a great learning for me on how to balance being a leader of staff, students, captains and also continuing my role in the classroom.

Fast forward a few years and I hit upon the ideal way to unobtrusively provide pastoral care to my team, this time as the Head of Humanities: chocolate! On Friday afternoons, during report writing or just days when the wheels were getting squeaky, out would come the trusty party packs of Mars bars or Cadburys (nut-free, of course… um, even the nut-free Toblerones or Ferrero Rochers!). Those teaching period 6 on Friday? There’s no way they miss out! Most of us taught with an open door, so it was easy to wander in to their classroom with a bag of chocolates, with one for the teacher and a few for whichever students most deserved one at the end of the lesson.

For those in the department who I didn’t share an office with it was also effective. Walking in and saying, ‘Hey, need a chocolate?’ is a very low-key way of saying ‘I know things are hectic, and I appreciate it. But it’s ok – tell me.’ Invariably, these members of the department had positions of responsibility and were near a secretary or two – and every teacher knows who really runs the school! Teachers get one chocolate, secretaries get two is the general rule (‘You’ll need one later’). And if a POR in an office gets the chocolate treatment, then the others who are around also get offered one. There are also often a couple of teachers who have a History/English load and are seated with their English colleagues. English teachers (or their helpers!) make the best cakes, so it was well worth reciprocating with the occasional chocolate!

What’s all this mean?

It is relationship building without forcing it. I’ve often felt it fake or forced when leaders do the rounds of the troops – I’m here, and I’m being seen to be around. (Yeah, I’m terrifically cynical…). But who isn’t bought off by chocolate at stressful times – especially when you work out people’s favourites and dig a dark Toblerone out of a Mars packet? You have remembered what they like, and that means you are listening. But it is even more important to be around during times of high stress.

Perhaps more importantly, when bad news needs to be given, or a quiet word, or a complaint raised, we have a relationship. Which actually has nothing to do with chocolate. We’ve talked. We’ve shared what is going on in our classes. We’ve talked about our kids or football or given each other abuse based on whatever point of difference. But it means the pointed fingers stay curled in our hands, our voices stay (mostly) jokey, or we can express frustration and the other knows the depth of our feeling. And we work out an amicable compromise. We apologise. We buy each other a drink on Friday afternoon. And we continue as effective colleagues. There is no us and them.

Did I set out to be a chocolate leader? Of course not – I’m just a generous sweet-tooth who figured if I was going to get fat I was going to take everyone with me!

The author has no current affiliation to any brands indicated in this post. He is more than willing to accept offers of sponsorship, however!

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