This How We Look When We Lead

When I made my decision to leave headship and become an Independent Consultant, I worked with Marianne Hartley, on how best to brand myself. Her response amazed me. “I can design something for you but you already have your own brand, your look. Your hair.” How could the one thing that’s been the source of so much negativity in my life be my ‘brand’?

My birth certificate labels me as ‘Cape Coloured’, a label invented by colonialists during the pre-apartheid regime. We were a group who were not white enough to be white and not black enough to be black, in a culture where whiteness guaranteed a life of privilege. As a child, growing up in a violent and toxic culture of apartheid, where everyone strived for a better life, having skin that was not too dark and hair that was not ‘too naughty’ impacted on the type of life you lived. Looking ‘almost white’ could open doors to opportunity, education, work, as opposed to a life of poverty and oppression. It was also an external reflection – the elephant in the room – of the ultimate taboo – interracial relationships. As a child I wore my hair mainly long in two tidy plaits and as a young adult I kept it short as way of controlling it’s unruliness. And then I had a ‘my hair doesn’t define me’ moment. I hated the time and what felt like an eternal battle to blow dry it into something it wasn’t. So I let it be. And opened the door to what often felt like judgement, disappointment and commentary.

One of my most vivid moments of my hair and my leadership came when I went for an interview for my first headship. I was advised to blow dry my hair and tie it up in a bun so that I could look more professional. And I did it. I arrived in a suit, straightened hair, scared as hell. I was the only woman out of 7 candidates, the only candidate who had not had headship experience, and only black person in the whole process. I felt utterly displaced, emotionally and physically uncomfortable. I did not feel like me and I asked myself over and over what the hell I was doing there. I did not belong. Each time I caught sight of myself I felt like I did not belong to me. We were told that 3 candidates would be asked back for Day 2 of interviews and when I was invited to report back the next day to do an unseen presentation and panel interview, I convinced myself that I was included for tokenistic reasons.

I spent that evening in floods of tears of rage and fear and rang my inner circle for support. I was being used, they knew who they wanted. And once I sobbed myself to the point of exhaustion I had another ‘I don’t give a damn moment’. If I was to go back there the next day then I needed to go as me and share my vision of what a school should look like. I went in the next day. No suit and I left my hair in it’s natural style. I knew I wouldn’t get the job, I had nothing to lose by going as me. But…. I got the job, my defining moment for making a promise to myself to always show up as me.

Throughout my leadership journey I became used to comments being made about my hair. I was brave, untidy, unruly, unconventional, sassy. I recall a TA telling me, after I’d lost some weight, that I looked great and if I just sorted out my mop, I’d look amazing. I rarely engaged, after all I had a promise to keep to me. To embrace and accept myself for all that I am. I understood that we become what we think.
Self-acceptance is a principle of leadership and of being human. It means accepting our imperfections and building on our strength. It means less time devoted to self doubt and changing how we look and how we lead to what others think leadership looks like and more time getting on with the job with the confidence and conviction that we look right, we do right.

Through my acceptance of self, came acceptance of others. It is truly liberating to accept people as they are. I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what a teacher looks like, or sounds like or presents as. I loved recruiting the best teachers who could teach from the soul, irrespective of how different they were to me. I have no preconceived ideas of what a successful pupil looks like, sounds like, presents as. I believe I am the truly lucky one because my self-acceptance gave me the opportunity to lead a truly diverse community of harmonious, successful people, who all had permission to be themselves and to accept each other. I modelled self-acceptance and I modelled what a leader looks like when they lead.

In words of India Arie
“I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations,
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within”