The lesson is, business has nothing to tell us

Successful corporations may get lucky, but when it comes to great leadership it's headteachers who understand the bottom line
27th February 2015, 12:00am
Jo Owen


The lesson is, business has nothing to tell us

Traditionally, education has been urged to learn the lessons of great leadership from business. It should be the other way round.

Great business leaders often turn out to be lucky, not great. Much was made of the US writer Jim Collins' 2001 book Good to Great, based on painstaking research to identify the most successful firms. After looking at 1,435 companies, he honed in on 11. These included Circuit City (now bankrupt), Fannie Mae (bailed out by the US government) and Gillette (taken over). Only one of the 11 has significantly outperformed the market since the publication of the book.

Naturally, the research assumes that the only real success stories are American firms run by middle-aged white men who have huge resources at their disposal. Quite what a cash-strapped headteacher in a challenging area is meant to learn from these millionaires is not clear.

In the UK, educators are supposed to learn from the giants of British industry listed in the FTSE 100 index of top public companies. However, only 19 of these have remained in the index for the whole of its 30 years. The rest have been taken over or overtaken. Learning the lessons of survival and success from a group of firms with an 80 per cent failure rate is not smart.

It seems as though a large amount of success is down to luck. With a more or less global monopoly on desktop operating systems, it would have been hard for Microsoft not to make money. By contrast, you would have found it difficult to survive if you were in UK coal mining or garment-making 30 years ago. Being a great firm or a great business leader is often a question of being in the right place at the right time.

Perhaps we have been peering down the wrong end of the telescope all these years. Instead of schools looking to businesses for leadership savvy, businesses should start learning from schools instead.

There is no luck involved in being a successful school leader. To use the language of business, each school knows exactly the quantity and quality of the raw materials (students) it receives at the start of the process. Each school knows exactly the quality of the output at the end, if judged on the narrow measure of exam results. And each government-run school operates on a roughly level playing field in terms of budgets.

In addition, schools have the joy of being inspected by Ofsted, which keeps their achievement under observation. There is no hiding place; success does not come from being lucky.

A winning formula

So what differentiates the most successful schools from the less successful, in terms of progress? It is not the raw materials or the budget or being in a lucky market. It is about the leadership and the staff: great leaders attract great staff.

Being a school leader is to operate without a safety net. Headteachers do not live the gilded existences of chief executives, supported by armies of staff, lawyers, consultants, accountants, HR professionals, ICT staff and numerous other corporate life-support systems. A chief executive can essentially be carried by their firm but a school leader cannot be carried by their school. When we see headteachers succeeding, we know we are seeing true leadership. Firms should sit up, take notice and start learning.

In researching my upcoming book on great leadership, I have found that business could be learning serious lessons from education. Of course, the best schools have outstanding and original policies around teaching and learning, behaviour management, student voice and other topics that generate endless debate. But there is no single formula for success (which will come as no surprise to anyone). The only formula that works in every great school is to have great leadership at every level.

As for the best leaders, the one factor that differentiates them from the rest is not skill or qualifications but mindset. Carol Dweck has written persuasively about growth mindsets, although outstanding leaders offer much more than that. They have exceptionally high aspirations, courage to take people further than they thought possible and huge resilience in the face of adversity. They never duck responsibility, they are relentlessly positive and they are collaborative, not lone heroes. They also have a hard edge: they will be ruthless in pursuit of the mission when they need to be. They are not the sort of people I would like to disappoint.

These qualities were absolutely consistent across all the best leaders who took part in my research. Mindsets are no more than a consistent way of thinking, and therefore acting and reacting to the world. The good news is that they can be learned. The bad news is that no one teaches them. The MBA, now a rite of passage for aspiring executives, looks at strategy, marketing, finance and organisation theory. It teaches nothing about what really matters: mindset.

It is time for business to go back to school to learn what leadership is really about.

Jo Owen is one of the founders of Teach First, Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders; his book The Mindset of Success: from good management to great leadership is published on 3 March by Kogan Page

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