Sir Michael Bichard, the DFEE's top official, tells Phil Revell that good leaders are not born, they learn the skills they need to inspire and direct
IT is the word of the moment. In the Eighties the buzzword was "management" and through the Nineties "quality" and "standards" became the mantras.
But the current holy grail is
The British Education Management and Administration Society has decided to add leadership to its title, while, at the largest
management gathering in Europe, the recent Chartered Institute of Personnel Development conference, speaker after speaker stressed its importance.
Among them was Sir Michael Bichard: Man United fan, erstwhile chief executive of Brent and Gloucestershire and, since 1995, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment.
"For me leadership is about creating a sense of purpose and direction," he said. "It's about getting alignment and it's about inspiring people to achieve."
Alignment involves ensuring that everyone on board has a clear idea of the course the ship is steering. Bichard is currently responsible for three of the Government's main objectives: raising school standards, creating a learning society and moving people from welfare to work under the New Deal initiative.
"A leader has to create shape and pattern to persuade people that it all fits together," says Bichard. "He or she needs to keep a constant lookout for occasions when systems don't fit."
That involves knowing the organisation intimately: "You have to take time to learn how the organisation ticks, what matters to it, what's its history, what has hurt it in the past."
In 1990, after a 20-year career in local government, Bichard became chief executive of the Benefits Agency - with 65,000 staff and an administrative budget of pound;2.5 billion. In 1995 he became permanent secretary at the Department of Employment, which was merged with the Department of Education and Science to create the DFEE later that year.
His immediate boss is David Blunkett and the two are said to get on well, though Bichard did let slip that delivering on family-friendly policies at the DFEE was complicated by having a minister who regularly works 12-hour days.
He is evangelical about the need to enthuse staff and encourage a real belief in the difference their organisation is making - whether it is a school or a government department.
"We can do a lot by making heroes of the people who deliver. It's important to make people feel part of a success story. That's what they want to be."
DFEE staff have spent training days visiting schools to see the effect of policies at ground level, while senior civil servants have been expected to adopt a more open management style.
Some people are doubtful about the value of the new focus on leadership. Successful leaders, it has been argued, have personal qualities that make them stand out from the crowd and orgaisations should concentrate on identifying the individuals with leadership potential.
"Successful leaders are the ones who know the levers to pull to create a sense of purpose and direction," says Bichard. But he still believes that programmes like the National Professional Qualifications for Headship and the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers can make a difference in schools.
"I don't think that you are born with a set of competencies which make you a better leader. I think you can enhance existing skills through training and that is what we trying to do through heads. You can teach a lot of the skills of leadership. You teach them about levers that have tended to work in the past."
And, in Sir Michael Bichard's view, there is a clear difference between leadership and management. "Management is about planning, budgeting, implementation, monitoring, resolving, problems, evaluation ..." he says.
Some organisations succeed despite the leaders they are stuck with. "Some things happen in spite of the alleged leader - or they happen when he or she is out playing golf," and leaders do not have to be charismatic frontrunners who make the loudest noise in the room.
"Leaders bring different
personalities to the job, you can have introverted leaders who are very good at listening,
who are just as effective."
Dealing with change is a key skill, especially in teaching where Teacherline recently reported that many of the stressed-out staff ringing the help number were complaining about the relentless rate of change which characterises the typical school today.
"Leadership is about change," says Bichard, "Success depends upon the ability to adapt. For many in the engine room change can seem like a series of
contradictory commands bellowed out over the Tannoy."
It is also about the ability to welcome new ideas and the willingness to take necessary risks.
"The easiest thing for a leader to do is to say "No" and regrettably it's also the safest thing to do. A new idea is delicate - it can be stifled by a yawn or stabbed to death by a joke. Not everyone wants to take risks - people are conscious that while eagles may soar weasels don't get sucked into jet engines."
He makes the point that the successful literacy and numeracy initiatives were introduced in the face of tooth-and-nail opposition from the profession.
"Nearly every teacher in the country now supports the literacy and numeracy hours - but it was an occasion when we had to provide some leadership."
Sir Michael Bichard's style contrasts with the pundits who have tried to define leadership in terms of flow charts and diagrams. When he speaks about leadership there is sense that he is aware of the awful experience some staff have at the hands of their leaders.
"The problem is," he says, "that many of us in leadership positions are control freaks with predictable views - that's how we got there."