Book review: The Three Minute Leader

Bernard Trafford finds much to admire in this pithy leadership book crammed with ideas and insights - even if it doesn't have anything to say about going to the pub

Bernard Trafford

Book review: The Three Minute Leader

The Three Minute Leader

Author: Roy Blatchford
Publisher: 
John Catt Educational Ltd 
Details: 68pp, £10
ISBN: 9781912906901

Remember those management and self-help books perched, in pre-downloading days, next to Word Processing for Dummies in airports and stations?

Many were arrant tosh, but among the good ones was Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager.

That clever how-to book distilled Blanchard’s lifetime’s management experience into bitesize nuggets of wisdom, including his now-famous dictum of “catching people doing things right”.

So I was intrigued to come across Roy Blatchford’s book, The Three Minute Leader. It appeared he was treading familiar ground.

But despite the similarities in the title, there’s nothing derivative about the content of Blatchford's book.

Short and to the point

Roy Blatchford is a former head, HMI and founder of the National Education Trust and Blinks. Among much else, he wrote The Forgotten Third, that recent, crucial report into the proportion of 16-year-olds condemned to GCSE failure.

Hold on! Does anyone need a leadership book when, right now, all school leaders are firefighting, working miracles in keeping education going during national lockdown?

Yes, they do. When things went crazy, I used to look in the metaphorical mirror and take stock of my efforts at school leadership. 

In fact, that's where this book really shines by offering a useful, accessible, window into the myriad elements that comprise leadership in schools in the form of 101 topics, each occupying only a half-page, making it a quick and easy read, yet packed with insights and ideas.

A numbers game

Themes recur and develop, if serendipitously. For example, leaders must communicate a vision (number 54), be ambitious (24), dream (97) and maintain high expectations (98).

While you can tighten systems to create a good school, you must loosen them to be excellent (53): excellence, we’re reminded, is a habit (81), recalling an inspirational chapter from Blatchford’s 2014 publication The Restless School.

It’s done by talking and listening to colleagues and children (3, 4), knowing your community and setting (7), grabbing opportunities to compliment (2) and praise (62). Unlike most politicians, good leaders talk about what “we” achieve, not “I” (44), remembering that they are both servant (78) and enabler (36).

There are contradictions to be found, though. Leaders must grasp nettles (5), yet avoid diving in (33) and learn to live with grey areas, seeking “and/and” rather than “either/or” solutions (77).

Similarly counterintuitive is the need for leaders to thrive on accountability (22) and take the rap “when the s**t hits the fan” (32), while simultaneously taking risks (19, 96), confronting authority (18) and reassuring colleagues that the customer isn’t always right (51).

Intellectual school leadership requires encouraging colleagues to read, research and write (73), while wise leaders (following Machiavelli, the author might have added) appoint people smarter than them (74).

And, just as a reminder of the tough bits, they have to live largely without thanks or praise (42), care more than others think is wise (95) and, humbly, look in that mirror and periodically ask themselves by what right they lead anyone (99).

Missing elements

So what’s missing? To discussions of the balance between judgment and luck (50) and trusting your instincts (15), I’d add leaning on and learning from others’ experience.

Keep in touch with an old friend and/or former colleague who’s trodden a similar career path. Above all, phone them when the solids really hit the air conditioning (see 32).

The book is maybe light on the subject of changing institutions, a hard topic to render bitesize. Leaders who know change is essential often have to be tough and brave, dodging “harpoons” (89), but should beware the temptation of pushing through change for the sake of putting their personal stamp on the place.

Finally, I always thought taking colleagues to the pub was important. My retirement bash was actually held in a brewery: I didn’t organise it, but it furnished endless staff jokes.

Leadership is a complex matter but it rests on simple, basic truths, which this excellent little handbook presents in easily digestible form without becoming glib or cosy.

It’s disturbingly prophetic. Even the current crisis is effectively addressed in the closing section, which quotes sci-fi author William Gibson, who cannily observed that “the future is already here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

“Schools risk realising too late that they are cooked – marooned in a different age,” Blatchford concludes, though “astute leaders have started their preparations”.

Astute leaders will buy and read this book, too.

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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