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Experience true genius in action

Here is a picture of an inspirational manager and leader, a person on top form. Chris - that is this person's name - leads a demanding group of people, all different, all full of sparkle and creativity, and yet constantly demanding to be fed with more and more ideas.

As Chris briefs one person, engaging in discussion, feeding in suggestions, corrections and instructions, another one has completed the last assignment and is demanding attention, wanting the job signed off and a new one allocated.

Skills and abilities within the group are widely spread, and Chris has to bear this in mind all the time if the enterprise is to move forward smoothly. She has well-developed presentation skills and an enviable ability to keep the group interested when they are called together for a briefing.

Information technology obviously helps here, but the core skill of being able to engage with people - each at his or her own level, drawing out ideas, bouncing questions and answers to and fro - is what really counts.

The whole process adds up to a permanent adrenaline rush as Chris draws deeply on her skills and experience to stay ahead of these lively, often eccentric people.

One of the biggest headaches for her is keeping on top of the constant demand for resources. This is an area where there is good support. There is a small team helping to feed in materials and keep them stocked up, but it is Chris's job to think ahead about strategic requirements, always bearing in mind the budget.

Along with that goes a particularly precise need for good time management.

Many tasks are run to a closely defined timetable, with little opportunity for overruns or missed deadlines.

The planning demands, obviously, are daunting. Much of it takes place on the hoof, in response to immediate needs.

That is not nearly enough, though. Strategy - long, medium, and short term - has to be set out clearly, in line with the overall aims of the organisation, and this is work done in the twilight hours when the group members have gone off to their families.

It is a work hard, play hard, way of life. Chris shares sport with the group, for example. They enjoy a regional version of baseball, and various competitive games akin to paintball.

But they are more sophisticated in that they are designed to develop skills progressively and to be played indoors or out, without the need for expensive specialised equipment or protective clothing.

Chris also takes the group on awaydays, where there are opportunities to relax and eat together, perhaps enjoying some mental stimulation in a museum or heritage centre.

To experience Chris at work is to see a true leader in action. Each member of the group genuinely wants to do well and receive praise. Each one, too, makes visible and gratifying progress as Chris gives coaching and guidance that is finely judged to be appropriately gentle or assertive.

But enough of this, because you are well ahead of me. This is not Chris the leader of a creative group in an advertising agency, or of a roomful of young Turks in the financial sector. This is Christine, any reception teacher in any school in the land.

However, let us not just smile smugly and leave it there. We need to remember that every headteacher has the task of leading a whole team of people like Chris - and clearly that must call for some very special qualities.

In 2000, the Hay Group compared 200 heads with 200 business leaders, and came to a conclusion that has been regularly and proudly trotted out ever since. "The role of head is stretching by comparison to business. Even highly successful executives would struggle to exert outstanding leadership in schools."

What is not so often quoted is the bit that points out areas for improvement, such as: "Heads rely too heavily on telling people what to do."

Chris and her colleagues may not thrive best in a regime where they are told what to do. Leading such people is altogether more subtle and difficult.

There are many quotations and statements that sum this up. Here is one I like from Managing the professional service firm by David Maister (Free Press, 1997): "Leaders are needed to be the guardians of the long term.

They are valuable when they act as the conscience of their colleagues: not necessarily giving them new goals, but helping them achieve the goals they have set for themselves." Haigh is a former head

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