If the headship cap fits… to lead is to learn how

By | 4 March 2011

Hilary Moriarty reports from the Boarding Schools’ Association’s deputy heads conference
When the National College’s chief executive Steve Munby addressed deputies at the Boarding Schools’ Association’s annual deputy heads conference recently, he referred to people “assuming the mantle of leadership”, a garment which, he asserted, fitted some people very well from the off.
Other people grew into it, and made it a comfortable fit. And some people found that it was never a good fit.
In common parlance, we speak of the leader’s role like new clothes. How many new heads find themselves having to fill “the very big shoes” of the successful head before them? At a conference where the wish to be a leader is almost a given, the warning that it is an inappropriate ambition for everyone was salutary. But the fact remains that even if they would not make a good leader, very few people would admit today to actively wanting to “follow”.
If this is so, then is it not the major flaw in the almost wholesale importation into businesses and schools of what was originally a model of military leadership. Armies need leaders who have, historically, been the decisive players. But in real life, happy followership is hard to inspire – which may be one of the reasons the military simply made following obligatory. Fail to follow equals court martial. Simple.
By contrast, in today’s schools, how often does one hear of a head leaving a school by mutual agreement because they are deemed “to have lost the confidence of the common room”?
In today’s egalitarian but widely ambitious world, leadership can indeed, as Warren Bennis neatly put it, be akin to herding cats. School leaders in particular lead by permission of the followers, many of whom are convinced that they could do a better job.
In such a world, two emerging theories are useful. One, you learn to lead not by taking a degree with “leadership” in the title, but by leading. Two, you can’t do it on your own – most organisations need “distributed leadership”, i.e. lots of leaders.
Now, you don’t learn how to swim by standing on the side of the pool. Ditto leading. And perhaps schools are now better training grounds for leadership because they will provide shallow pools where the would-be swimmer can feel the strain as well as the triumph.
Unfortunately, sometimes even deputies who should be apprentice leaders are required to do what the head wants done, as the head wants it done, and the deputy may not feel sufficient ownership of what is done to be able to flex their leadership muscles.
But if the view of the chief of the National College is that complex organisations like schools cannot, realistically, be led in today’s world by one charismatic, autocratic, despotic leader, but actually need a leadership team in which all members are leaders in their own right, then there will be more opportunities to learn to lead by leading.
Interestingly, Mr Munby’s serious advice is that even as a leader, you will need a mentor. For every leader, there is all too likely a “dark night of the soul” during which circumstances combine to make him or her doubt their abilities, fitness for the job, or fit of the mantle. At such a time, a mentor is the vital support.
Leadership is lonely; your deputy and colleagues are entitled to expect of you the confidence and optimism which are the hallmarks of good leaders even in adversity; but you should not be alone.
Obama recently remarked that he had not fully realised that the only things to reach his desk as president of America would be the really tough decisions, because around him were people (mini-leaders?) who had dealt with anything that might remotely be called “easy”. And perhaps it’s the same for heads – mentor and distributed leadership or not, in the end there is only one head, and you can only learn to be one by being one.
This article originally appeared at http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=82409;type_uid=7

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