Leadership? Let's move on

Chris Holligan

It seems as though we are all, as teachers, suffering from the effects of poor parenting. We need people to guide and lead us, official wisdom says. Psychologists argue that many human beings have a deep need to be directed towards collective goals and that, without such leadership, they will individually accomplish very little. Leadership is also a hot topic in the political domain: witness critics of the Prime Minister arguing he is a "weak" leader compared with Tony Blair.

In politics, good leadership is taken to mean a certain type of public persona. This hinges around body language, especially facial communication. Eye contact, a look of purpose, smiles at the right time and posture appear to be the cues used to define the good leader. Speech content is largely irrelevant. We only "hear" the look.

Yet these are all, on the surface, characteristics capable of being formally trained and easily exploited to win the approval rating of being a "good" leader. In the modern world, it is sadly the case that being the admired species can co-exist with a moral emptiness. In other words, the putative good leader, while popular at large with publics, could be a shallow and devious individual. And those deemed to lack leadership might include individuals with commitment and depth.

It is a sad fact about society that most people cannot distinguish between a good leader and one who is trying to look like one by performing like a competent speaker graduated with honours from drama school.

We would all do well to reconsider even the more virtuous kind of leader, the one with genuine integrity whom one can trust. Our future analysis of school leadership in education ought to be bolder, asking why we are so dominated by this pervasive discourse of leadership. Only in recent decades has it become a professional norm to buy into it.

It is truly amazing that we have reinvented the social, moral and political acceptability of leadership, as though we have lost our historical memories of the evil and chaos which leadership has wrought in two world wars.

Is it too far-fetched to conjecture that modern democracies and their systems of education are no longer as effective in the modern world because they have become captured by spurious ideas about leadership? Would it be ridiculous also to conjecture that the West's capacity to compete economically with India, China and other emerging global giants depends on us discarding these habits which have been unwittingly acquired by all?

Instead, perhaps, we ought to think of schools in terms of leaderless institutions, places where the capacities and personal riches of individual teachers are built on and recognised. Instead of them being "led" by virtual comic book hero figures, we ought to define a new paradigm of leadership in which the term itself is removed from professional discourse.

In its place, we should articulate a paradigm with resonances of A Curriculum for Excellence, only this time the "four capacities" are ones held by teachers and developed by them as a community. As long as we maintain our curious need and inclination towards looking for others to somehow direct us, personally, politically and educationally, schools will continue to under-achieve because they are being led by "good leaders". We need to move on and grow up.

Chris Holligan is a senior lecturer in the school of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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Chris Holligan

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