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Amazing grace: lessons for school leaders from Barack Obama’s presidency

Few people exhibit the grace in leadership demonstrated by Barack Obama during his presidency

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Few people exhibit the grace in leadership demonstrated by Barack Obama during his presidency

Breakfast is not a time to talk to strangers. Apart from family, a newspaper and BBC Radio 3, breakfast is a time for silence and thought.

Why some hotels think that their guests want to share breakfast with strangers at a "family table" is a mystery to me.

So it was with a feeling of trepidation that we came down to breakfast one morning in America two years ago to find someone who wanted to engage in conversation already at the one and only round table for ten.

Our table companion was Sarah Kaufman, the Pulitzer prizewinning ballet correspondent of the Washington Post and the subject of our conversation was grace, on which she was writing a book.

She had spent the previous evening on a stage interviewing Edward Villella, the most famous American male ballet dancer of all time.

Soon afterwards, Mr Villella himself joined us at the table. It was over 30 years since the now 80-year old Villella retired as a dancer and became director of Oklahoma City Ballet.

He was shaky and it seemed that time had not worn well on the body of a man, who is pictured on the internet in a mid-air leap, legs ramrod straight, forming a line with body and arm as he appears to defy gravity.

At the breakfast table, Mr Villella spoke with a gentle voice, but it was his hands that demonstrated throughout the conversation the quality of grace that can be seen in pictures of him as a ballet dancer.

This conversation came to mind last month on reading an assessment by 17 leading authors of Barack Obama’s leadership, in which the most frequently used word was grace. 

Attica Locke, for example, wrote: “Thank you, Barack. Thank you for your grace, your intelligence, your curiosity, your patience, your respect for our constitution, your respect for people who don’t look like you or pray like you or love like you.”

Lionel Shriver said that, “Most of all I will miss his style: his suave deportment, his droll sense of humour, his understatement and his physical energy, his articulacy, his charm and his grace.”

“The grace. The all-encompassing, abiding and amazing grace: in manner and form, in argument and intellect, with humour and cool, no matter what came his way,” wrote Candace Allen.

Aminatta Forna was the final contributor to the Guardian article, writing: “What will Obama be remembered for most? Grace. There is a deep love in many quarters for Obama, which is rooted in the level of grace he and his family have shown in the last eight years; in the face of the Tea Party’s antics, the obstructionism of Republican Congressmen, the "birther" insults, the cries of "you lie" during a speech in Congress.”

Successful leaders are calm and authoritative

The authors were far from uncritical of Obama’s presidency. Drone attacks, the failure to close Guantanamo or to curb corporate excess, insufficient stimulation of the economy after the financial crisis, Libya and Syria were all mentioned as things he had got wrong.

Yet the writers extolled the positive qualities that mark out Obama as an exceptional American president: urbanity, wit, compassion, composure, coolness, generosity, dignity and restraint under pressure, reflectiveness, elegance, moral uprightness, modesty and high standards; a combination of gravitas and warmth. “He didn’t confuse his ego with the job, so he has been the messenger for all constituencies,” wrote Richard Ford.  

If this combination of leadership qualities can be summed up in a single word, that word would be grace.

There is a sense here too of a person who is bien dans sa peau; that is to say, being comfortable in one’s own skin, a necessary but not sufficient condition for grace.

We use the words "graceful" and "gracious" as a positive description of an individual’s actions or words; other people come to mind whom we might describe as "graceless".

Everyone in leadership roles can learn from the way leadership is exercised in other spheres. School leaders, in particular, benefit from looking beyond education to the worlds of politics, business and the arts to see how successful leaders operate there.

In an earlier blog, I set out twelve positive characteristics of successful school leaders, including being principled, authentic, creative and resilient. These leaders are calm and authoritative. Combining these qualities, the word that comes to mind is grace.

I am not referring here to the Christian "state of grace" or the notion of someone "gracing" an activity or event by their presence. It is more the totality of a person’s actions and the sum of the qualities they demonstrate that produce in others a feeling that this is a person who exudes grace.

Nelson Mandela had the same effect on people. Cary Grant is Sarah Kaufman’s prime example. Some sports offer particular opportunities for grace – diving, running, tennis, football – and the arts have had their share of graceful performers, but I can think of few people that exhibit the range and depth of qualities that amount to the level of grace shown by Barack Obama during his presidency.

Humanity, humility, hope and humour – the four Hs of school leadership – were demonstrated by Barack Obama throughout his presidency.

Perhaps we should add grace to this list of the desirable qualities of school leaders.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in November 2016. He tweets as @johndunford

For more columns by John, visit his back-catalogue.

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