Can't manage without leaders

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Ben Williams says leadership skills should be taught in schools.

The education system seems to accept the idea that "leaders are born", rather than that leadership can be learned. The consensus is that it is very difficult to define, difficult to teach, and not everyone needs it anyway.

School captains, team captains or prefects are elected by popularity, or by organisational criteria set by the needs of the school, or even the particular bias of the headteacher. The assumption is that only a few children are naturally gifted in some way, and that they must be leaders.

We apply the same thinking to graduates entering industry, people who qualify as accountants, doctors, dentists and teachers. They have qualified in their specialist topics, they are knowledgeable and, therefore, we may assume, qualified to lead. When this doesn't produce the desired result, we suggest that all they need is more experience. But by this time it is almost impossible to persuade the incumbent leaders that they need training.

There is a lot of concern about the 20 per cent of schools nationally which are under-performing, and there is difficulty in recruiting headteachers of a suitable standard. The Prime Minister's direct involvement with these issues should indicate the seriousness of the problem. Clearly the status of the teaching profession in our society needs to be restored before it becomes more attractive to potential recruits.

The Education Minister, Brian Wilson, is considering a professional management qualification for heads. Jim McNair, the general secretary of the Headteachers Association of Scotland, appears to welcome the idea but is wary of its becoming compulsory. He also believes that current selection procedures are satisfactory.

But the real concern is not that heads need more qualifications, but that they lack any real education in management skills, and that these have been confused with leadership.

Psychologists can identify more than 40 core management skills using psychometric assessment and other black arts such as the behaviour descriptive interview. Such skills include empathy and rapport, active listening, negotiating and persuasion, presentation and business speaking, and decision thinking and decision making which combine with any of the other skill sets that make up excellence in leadership.

Yet still there is confusion about learning how to behave as a leader, how to become accepted and how to get results. It is not just a matter of "How can I get them to do what I want and still respect me?" though it must be said that some managers concentrate on the former at the expense of the latter.

Management has been defined as "achieving a desired outcome through the economical use of resources". Logical but somewhat uninspiring. Or how about "the art of getting people to do what you need them to do"? Very people-orientated and clearly not the whole picture. What about all those non-human resources such as capital and land? They all need managing, and headteachers, like their staff, need to maintain high standards of management just to get through a tough day.

One definition of a leader which is particularly inspiring - because it works - is "one who gains a following". This does not mean rushing out to find a parade and then marching in front of it, though some so-called leaders, notably mediocre politicians and senior executives, do just that. Leadership is about gaining and focusing the commitment of others to achieve a purpose.

Key facets include influencing skills, which are characterised by integrity, wisdom and the ability to communicate a vision so that others will share it.

Compulsory or not, leadership and management skills training will create tremendous benefits for teachers and heads. They will not only improve their own skills; they will, by example, imbue their pupils with those qualities, thereby improving the culture and performance of the school. Teaching leadership and management skills as school subjects would create better potential managers and a workforce which would be eminently more employable, even if they never achieve management status.

It would also develop a greater number of more skilful entrepreneurs who would be likelier to succeed because they will already have some management and leadership skills.

Some of today's entrepreneurs are very good leaders, but many are not. How wasteful to diminish a potentially excellent business opportunity because the progenitor is still on a learning curve in areas which could so easily have been learned at school. Teachers may not feel concerned about business success, or about the leadership qualities of heads. But they might have an easier and possibly more rewarding life at work if their head was more skilled as a manager and leader. Some teachers are already lucky in reporting to an outstanding head. The shame is that there are not more.

Ben Williams is a chartered occupational psychologist in Edinburgh, whose practice assesses the management training needs of individuals and teams

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