The cult of leadership

31st January 2003 at 00:00
It may be asking too much of headteachers for the Executive to try to turn them into school icons, says Kevin Orr

FORMER New York mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to make the news. In the past month alone we have learnt that he is to remarry, his life story is to be made into a movie and he has dispensed with his Bobby Charlton comb-over.

Such has been the impact of his leadership as mayor of New York, particularly during the events following September 11, his every move is assiduously recorded.

Intriguingly the cult of Giuliani coincides with the ascendancy of the idea of education leadership. Do his thoughts on leadership have any application within the context of schools? And is there a danger that the current preoccupation with leadership will place unsustainable burdens on the role of school managers?

For schools, councils and the Scottish Executive, leadership remains a vexed question. The profession is investing hugely in leadership training, partly driven by the McCrone reforms but also reflecting a latent belief by the Executive in the power of individual headteachers to somehow "turnaround" educational performance.

This focus on leadership is not unique to schools. The McIntosh and Kerley reviews of local government each expressed reservations about the quality of local political leadership and the need to get "the right stuff" into leadership positions. Among other things they have worried that civic figures do not have sufficiently high profiles and that the calibre of individuals standing for election needs to be improved.

The Executive itself has been accused of lacking dynamism. The awkward rhetorical construction of "doing less, better" is held by detractors to smack of a deficiency of vision on the part of what critics regard as a thin pool of political talent since the death of Donald Dewar.

There is a lot resting on the idea that the best way to transform public services is to improve their leadership. So what can we learn from the recent thoughts of Mr Giuliani, the man who has become one of the most feted leaders in the western world?

His recent book, Leadership, is instructive. It begins with a detailed account of the events of September 11 as he experienced them and offers 14 chapters setting out his "precepts" of leadership, using illustrations from his own life. By September 11, he had been working on this book for six months - "it was as if God had provided an opportunity to design a course in leadership just when I needed it most". He drew on each of its principles within hours of the twin towers attacks. This is a powerful sell. Does it deliver?

As an iconic figure, Mr Giuliani now markets himself to people who want to glean the secrets of good leadership. And in this respect his contributions are no more and no less vacuous than the heap of material on offer from silver-tongued gurus, retired politicians and superannuated chief executives that have made this such a big selling genre over the past 20 years.

The principles he outlines - prepare relentlessly, everyone's accountable all of the time, surround yourself with great people, be your own man, stand up to bullies and so on - are a folksy mixture of law firm, city hall and front porch wisdom.

His observation that there is a "certain kind of fulfilment from government work that is not available elsewhere" may appeal to teachers. However it is when he tries to construct his leadership tenets that the book is at its weakest. Being an attorney-general is like being a baseball manager - loyalty is a virtue, learn from great teams, don't turn victory into a defeat and be ready to pull the trigger when time is short are a mixture of the banal and the bizarre.

The problem with the idea of universalised trait models is that they ignore the contextual. The issue of export value is key. Are the characteristics displayed by the empowered mayor of a huge city state undergoing a sudden massive crisis the same as those we would want from someone managing a primary school, children's services, or a community school?

The second difficulty is the self-mythologising nature of autobiographical accounts of leadership. Such constructions can have an ultimately depressive effect on aspirant readers. The figures that they draw - part action heroes, part philosopher kings - seem unmatchable and our own efforts and skills are rendered feeble by comparison.

he influences that he cites are carefully chosen. Ronald Reagan, for whom Mr Giuliani worked as an associate attorney-general, receives more than two dozen mentions throughout the book. As well as citing his parents as a formative influence he is keen to record that five uncles served as New York police or fire officers. Mr Giuliani also tells us that he had the Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill on his nightstand throughout the crisis. The cult of leadership is fuelled by the idea of agents influencing events.

The magnitude of September 11, however, suggests something much more counter-directional. His contribution to the recovery of New York is not to be underestimated but the book perhaps ultimately suggests a lame duck mayor transformed by events, rather than vice versa.

This points to the more general difficulty with the current emphasis on leadership in education. To what extent are issues of deprivation, exclusion and underattainment remediable by the actions of charismatic superteachers? And to what extent would wider support and action be required on the part of education authorities, councils and the Executive to tackle what are systemically entrenched problems which even the most heroic headteacher is unlikely to solve.

The danger is that, without attention to the latter, the cultural and literary fetish for leadership will tend to place an unsustainable burden on school managers.

Dr Kevin Orr is a lecturer in public sector management at Strathclyde University.

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