How Watership Down and a unique experience transformed my leadership

March 2, 2017
That Boy Can Teach

That Boy Can Teach @ThatBoyCanTeach

Assistant Vice Principal, Primary School, North of England

World Book Day seems an appropriate time to reflect on reading Richard Adams' children's classic 'Watership Down' which reminded me of a very valuable learning experience I had at Ambition School Leadership’s Teaching Leaders Residential.

Looking for leadership advice from a rabbit

In the book, the group of escaping rabbits are led by Hazel who proves himself to be an excellent leader; one rabbit comments to some others that ‘he must be good or you'd all be dead’. For rabbits whose main aim is to survive, Hazel is the perfect leader. But, as I read, I noticed something incredible. Look at these two examples:

1.    When arriving at Watership Down, Hazel uses the building expertise of another rabbit, Strawberry, for the construction of a new warren: ‘Hazel contented himself with organising the diggers and left it to Strawberry to say what was actually be done.’

2.   In discussion with Blackberry (the group's cleverest rabbit), Hazel says, ‘Well, you're the fellow for ideas. I never know anything until you tell me.'   To which Blackberry replies, ‘But you go in front and take the risks first.’


Hazel’s leadership success comes from his ability to utilise the abilities of others for the good of the group. He encourages and creates opportunities for them to use their gifts and skills. In doing so, he admits that he isn't the rabbit for every job - he steps back and lets others lead and contribute where they are more capable than himself.

Lessons in leadership at the Teaching Leaders programme Residential

One of the most inspirational aspects of the Teaching Leaders summer residential is the mysterious experiential. Shrouded in secrecy, it's a learning experience that no aspiring school leader should miss out on.

During the experiential I was made team leader but during the task another team member began to give instructions to the team. She had quickly attained a good grasp of what was at stake and the team seemed happy to try out her ideas. I felt my position of leadership slipping through my fingers. After what probably came across as a desperate attempt to 'regain' leadership, I decided that I could still lead whilst allowing the team to carry out the other team member's ideas. This style of leadership didn't come naturally to me, and I'm not sure I was that successful in that instance, but it certainly taught me an important lesson.

"It is not a weakness to allow someone else to take prominence, it is a sign of confidence, strength and, ultimately, good leadership."

I realised that, as a leader, I often attempted to do it all, even when there were others in my team who were better for the job. Furthermore, the experiential brought it home to me that I actually felt threatened by those who were better at something than I was. I found that I harboured feelings of resentment towards those I was supposed to be leading and my negative feelings were not conducive to good leadership and teamwork. In Watership Down, Hazel displays no such feelings - he embraces the skills of others and makes them integral to his success as a leader, and he's respected thoroughly for it.

This quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, sums up this leadership style best 'Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen' 


Adapting my leadership to improve my team

Since my powerful experience at the Teaching Leaders residential brought all of this home, I have tried to think more carefully about how each of my team members contribute to what we are trying to achieve as a team. They each have their strengths: some have excellent behaviour management techniques, some are highly skilled at providing written feedback, others are good at questioning and others are great at thinking of enjoyable ways to help children learn.

One step I have taken is to allow each of them to help others based on their skills: I'm saying more things like ‘Could you please show Laura your books so she gets a better understanding of how to use symbol marking?' or 'You could speak to Matt about how to resource that lesson in a more innovative way.' I've also decided to come to meetings with fewer pre-meditated outcomes, ready and willing to allow the voice of others to form our approach.

Had Hazel attempted to lead his group of rabbits by doing everything it is more than likely that they would not have succeeded - they would have had an exhausted leader who was attempting to carry out tasks that were not within his true skill set: not a recipe for success. It has taken courage to let go and let them rather than thinking I have to be the one who provides all the solutions. As individuals my team members are more motivated and as a team, we are... well, more of a team! I am less burdened now that I don't feel the need to be doing everything - in fact, I am more of a leader than I ever was.

Find out how we develop great leaders: applications for our Teaching Leaders programme are now open, click here.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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