Bring on business savvy

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Major research will allow leadership know-how to cross the sector divide. Jonathan Milne reports

headteachers could take tips from Sir Alan Sugar on The Apprentice: the television show's boardroom is a model of crisp and clear communication.

Heads don't often utter the words "You're fired", but a major new research project is to examine what they can learn from leaders in business, sport and health - and what they can teach other managers.

Indeed, if The Apprentice were set in a school, then sacked contestants Kristina and Katie might still be working alongside Simon, the winner of the TV series, says Professor Andy Hargreaves.

The National College for School Leadership and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust have commissioned a two-year international study of different types of leadership.

Professor Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan chair in education at Boston College in the United States, and Professor Alma Harris, director of Warwick University's institute of education, will lead the research.

"Part of leadership is the ability to have difficult conversations with people who work for you," said Professor Hargreaves. "That is the spirit of the Apprentice boardroom. Part of the purpose of difficult conversations is to raise issues about competence and performance - to use that to renew people's commitment to the organisation."

In business it was sometimes too easy to sack people, and in the public sector it was sometimes too hard. In a school, candidates in The Apprentice might have been moved into other roles rather than being fired. Sir Alan could offer tips on being self-serving, ruthless and bombastic - and these were not entirely failings. Professor Hargreaves said all leaders needed to be self-serving to a degree, and that school leaders were also driven by a public service imperative.

"If you're more than a manager and you are a leader, the moral purpose is really driving what you are doing," he said.

Some heads were so driven that they were running themselves into an early grave rather than sharing responsibility with a team.

"What some of the best business leaders do is work very effectively with the teams around them, knowing what their weaknesses are as well as their strengths," said Professor Hargreaves.

He admitted that the NCSL and SSAT had vetoed his proposal to investigate the Rolling Stones as an enduring model of entertainment industry leadership. Instead, the researchers will be hanging out in football clubs, rugby clubs, businesses, schools and hospitals.

School leaders often take inspiration and guidance from business - to the extent that they sometimes feed on scraps from corporate tables, he said.

It is time for education leaders to offer their expertise back to business, health and sport.

Frank Dick, president of the European Athletics Coaches Association, knows about leadership in both sports and education.

It was under his leadership as director of coaching for athletics in the UK that the likes of Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram, and double Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson reached their peaks. But long before that, Mr Dick was a PE and maths teacher at Worksop College, an independent boarding school in Nottinghamshire.

"When I came out of sport coaching, a lot of people were inviting me into business to talk about coaching there," he said.

"I quite shamelessly use the metaphors of sport to give messages, but I have learnt a lot from industry and education."

In business, the problem was often that there was one hierarchical management model - usually command and control. School leaders had been quicker to think laterally, to realise that there was more than one way to lead a young person to learning.

On the other hand, Mr Dick said education leaders needed to stop living in geographic and subject-based silos and instead share ideas and skills.

At Worksop College, when he was taking a top sports team on a trip to Europe, the headteacher had rightly insisted that he also take students from other subjects, such as modern languages and history.

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