Tom Bennett

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Can Leadership actually be taught? Spoiler: no.

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‘I was awesome BEFORE Starfleet.’

Kent: ‘You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.’ 

King Lear: ‘What’s that?’ 

Kent: ‘Authority.’ 


King Lear

Much talk in the news and on Twitter recently about leadership, and the needs for Heads to possess it.
But what IS leadership? This is the key issue to be addressed before we can discuss it; it’s the classic philosopher’s demand to define our terms. Because in most conversations I hear, the structure follows these lines:

P1: Heads are school leaders
P2: Leaders need to be good leaders
C: We should teach people to be good leaders

The invisible assumptions underpinning this argument are:

a) Leadership is a transferable skill set, or group of skills
b) They can be acquired by a teachable, repeatable process.

I would argue against both a) AND b). Leadership is an incredibly slippery fish to nail conceptually. In discussions I’ve had, I’ve heard it described as a hundred different things, or worse, a hundred different skills,  like the woeful check-lists of teaching competencies that dog our evaluations. The fact that people can’t even agree about what it IS spells doom, doom, DOOM to the debate, because when people are talking about different concepts but using the same name to describe them, only comedy can ensue.

I found the same dilemma with the question, ‘What makes a good teacher?’ I can think of hundreds of different styles and approaches that all have their uses in certain contexts; and I know of dozens of different moulds from which teachers can be cast- the stern hardass and the funny aesthete all have their place. Identikit models are the death of humanity and ingenuity- and wit.

A solution I found was to use what Wittgenstein called the ‘Family resemblance’ model; he talked about the concept of games- what does ‘game’ mean? On the surface it means a million different things- solitaire, golf, Final Fantasy, chess, Family Fortunes- which don’t share a single common denominator. Yet we use and understand the term. How? Because of family resemblance; golf is like chess in that it has competitors; and chess is like solitaire in that it can be played alone…and so on. There is an overlap of concepts between each one; viewed from afar, we identify this daisy chain of concepts ‘the family we call games’.

This can be applied to teaching, styles of which are often quite dissimilar (although it can be argued that several unifying features and skill sets stand out)- private tutors, Mr Miyagis, Mr Chips, Dumbledores, Mr Bronsons. And, I think, we can apply this to leadership. Different styles, approaches and skill sets, all linking together to form a family of concepts under one banner.

‘Nothing will come of Ofsted: speak again.’

Good leadership is far easier` to evaluate retrospectively rather than contemporaneously: when someone makes a decision that is unpopular and destructive in the short term, they are often accused of being authoritarian and tyrannical. But only time can tell if their decisions are borne out to have been good or bad ones. In that sense, every leader gambles that their decisions will be the right ones, even if the outcomes are relatively certain. And of course, no decisions are ever truly certain, because the future never is.

Be Tom unmannerly, when Lear is mad. 

So what is good leadership? It is when a person in charge (formally or by the coup d’etat of opportunity) makes decisions that result in the success of whatever project they are engaged in. It strikes me that in almost the entirety of a Head’s role, this will involve maintaining and administering correct structural procedures to ensure the efficient and utilitarian running of a school. In other words, most of good leadership is good management. A much undervalued leadership skill is, I think, the ability to discern when innovation is NOT required. If you listened to many leadership gurus, you’d think that good leaders spent all day revolutionising the way we operate on every level. What nonsense. That would imply that we have never managed to establish reasonably good ways of running schools and classrooms to the educational and social benefit of our charges. We have.

Innovation is only required when something isn’t working; even then, the answer to most problems in a school context isn’t usually something incredibly left-field, but instead probably involves tightening up on loose practises, professional black holes, and poorly enforced policies. Good leadership is usually simply making sure that what is supposed to happen, happens. Hence: management.

But leadership…leadership is an abstract that parallels ‘inspiration’ as a vapour, a mist, a ghost. It means something, all right. But that doesn’t mean it’s a meaningful set of easily understood abilities, much less something that can be taught formally. It’s part of character, certainly, and that’s a very hard thing to amend in a classroom or through the medium of project work and research. How many times would you have to study the Battle of Agincourt to become a great leader? How many Gallipolis would it take for you to realise the best way to storm a beach? Theory is a very poor vehicle for what leadership requires. Like wisdom, it isn’t something I can learn from a book, or even a fabulous teacher.

Which is why I reserve grave doubts about any formal process that claims to teach leadership, that certifies one as a leader after successful completion of their courses. Because in demonstration, this just isn’t true; many teachers know of a great many school leaders who are no such thing; and many excellent leaders I know are so despite their training, not because of it. Perhaps part of the problem lies with the prescriptivist nature of our system; certainly until we get to the most senior levels of school leadership, what is required isn’t passion,innovation and ingenuity, but compliance, docility and serving the needs of superiors. In effect, leadership is precisely what ISN’T wanted.

And what of Heads? My experience running nightclubs in Soho taught me something: that the higher you go, the more demands are placed on you IF you take your role seriously. To the inferior employee, the superior always looks like they have more freedoms and power; the reality is often the opposite. Heads have to respond to,and anticipate the whims of Ofsted and a million ministerial caprices.

Leadership implies autonomy, agency, and an X factor that cannot be generated in a laboratory. Found, perhaps; encouraged and drawn out in some, maybe. But taught?

Seriously?


7 Comments

  1. MIngram says:

    Dear Tom
    Do you sometimes feel like a prophet in the desert? Much (if not all) you write is such self-evident common sense. One wonders why the powers that be can persist in their blind insistence that change, innovation, uniform measurement etc from above and outside are good tools when the reality screams out its truth all the time.

    Thank you for being this voice in the wilderness at least. Maybe someone sometime will hear… and act. A good leader for a change, maybe?

  2. Bill Hall says:

    I fully concur with your conclusions Tom. As an ex-'middle manager', after years of 'leading' and 'being led', I've found that, like so many things in life, leadership relies on listening and observing before formulating any plans. As with battles, as soon as 'the plan' is put into action, 'the plan' is the first thing to go! However, if you've got good people, who really want the best for the children, and you give them the opportunity to take and active role, you can usually make something work out well in the end.

    This is in stark contrast to the 'Stepford Heads' leadership training approach, of applying a prescriptive set of 'innovations', currently favoured by so many politicians. Interestingly, what does it say for MP's understanding and personal experience of leadership? Do they appreciate the difference between being captain of their school second XI,and the sheer complexity of of managing the many conflicting demands of the whole school?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree. Especially about most of leadership being good management. In a way teaching has much to do with management/ leadership, whether it be a head teacher or a class teacher. As a teacher, often I find either you know how to lead, or you don't. (Or you are incredibly lucky and, very rarely, end up in a with a team who gel together fantastically to facilitate a focussed, happy learning environment for all concerned).

    Certainly in my time (over ten years ago), teacher training didn't include any management training. Even after all of this time, inset days are rarely (I say to be on the safe side, I have personally never known of any) about how to manage the adults in the classroom/ team/ school. And if you aren't a natural leader, it can make life very difficult and lead to a colossal waste of both children's and adult's teaching learning time, as well as a tense classroom atmosphere. I do want, for both myself, the other adults, the children, all of it: passion, innovation and ingenuity, not necessarily through compliance, docility and serving the needs of superiors, but remembering that one is there to serve the needs of the children. And instead of just simple compliance and docility – conversation, input, feedback, ideas at the right time, and most importantly, just having the adults in the right place at the right time!

    So no, it does not appear to be teachable (except for those very expensive courses which teach people how to talk so other adults say 'yes' to them and listen to them, which teachers cannot afford and 'rarely' go on). But in that case, for the hundreds, may be thousands of teachers, then what? (Other than a very stressful, miserable time, being made to feel a failure by SLT because the 'team' do not all pull weight, turn up on time etc). Any answers?

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    I would love to be John the Baptist, although I fear I'll meet the same end. I DO fancy the honey and wild locust bit though.

    Let's just keep saying it the way we see it, and see what happens.

    Thanks for the kind comments

  5. Tom Bennett says:

    I am taking the phrase 'Stepford Heads' and running with it; marvellous, thank you.

    T

  6. Tom Bennett says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. Answers?

    I would scrap most leadership training as it stands- all that role playing and amateur psychology is embarrassing. Then I would replace it with project based experience, following people considered good at being leaders. Other than that, the formal process is a sham.

  7. Bill Hall says:

    I look forward to seeing the result! (Do I get a commission?)
    All the best!
    Bill

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