Beasts in the head's chair

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Are confident lions, irritating beavers or fun-loving otters the best animal role-models for your leadership style?

We all know that America's a different place. As I discovered recently, for example, they don't seem to be familiar with the slow fox-trot, standing back aghast when they saw it performed by my wife and me. The full realisation of the cultural divide didn't really sink in, though, until the musical director of a high school choir tried to sell me a pair of shoes.

The choir, which was very good, was performing in the open air one summer evening in a small town on Lake Michigan. At that time I had a young choir of my own, so at the interval I introduced myself to the director, who asked me to come and see him later for a longer talk. At the end of the concert he approached me bearing not, as I thought, sheets of music and curricular material, but mail order brochures for shoes. Not only did he want me to buy some, but he proposed to set me up as his UK representative.

I thought of him when I came across the work of an American leadership consultant with the splendid and deeply comforting neo-Dickensian name of Jeff Earlywine. Jeff is another example of America's all-embracing acceptance of the business ethic. He is, in fact, a minister of religion who doubles as a consultant.

I am in no position to comment on Jeff's theology. His thoughts on leadership, though, are clear. He's very good, for example, on leadership types - a subject which has generated its share of pseudo-psychological balderdash over the years. He takes four types: the lion, the beaver, the golden retriever and the otter. The reason I like them is that without hesitation I can think of at least one real headteacher who fits each category, and together they demonstrate just how many ways there are of succeeding in school leadership.

The lion, as you'd expect, is very visibly in the driving seat, confident, strong and scary. This is the head I worked with once in Birmingham, who famously sent a teacher home to change his loud tie for something more seemly; the kind of person of whom people frequently said, "At least you know where you are with him." And you did. Out the door, if you weren't careful. But, like many lions in literature, he possessed a degree of compassion and understanding that often surprised.

The beaver is the irritating perfectionist. This is the head I knew who in the evenings would examine classroom wall displays, taking down the ones that didn't come up to scratch and leave them spread across the teachers'

desks, but who would always get everyone successfully through the day, and whose little sayings and habits live on in the people she trained who are now heads themselves.

The golden retriever is peaceful, compassionate and understanding. The person I think of was a nun - and, no, I don't think all nuns are like this. This one, though, was calm and reassuring. Furious and spitting urban children went to her and came away fixated on heaven, like King's College choirboys. And it wasn't because she was detached from the world. On the contrary, it was more that, after years as a missionary sister in the inner city, nothing could ever surprise her again.

The otter is the fun-loving, gambolling head who's surrounded by a family of like-minded people. This is the head I know in the West Midlands, whose school is filled with music, drama and dance, who always has time for you, and whose telephone voice is always on the verge of breaking into laughter.

At the same time, you know there's strength, skill and pace there - how else would anyone succeed so brilliantly in a challenging environment?

Maybe you're none of these. Perhaps you're something else - a kangaroo, hopping wildly along and then getting hit by a truck, or a duck-billed platypus, neither one thing nor the other. Or perhaps you are a boa constrictor, squeezing the life out of people then swallowing them whole.

Never mind, you can always sell shoes.

Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher who writes extensively about educationl

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