Don't build your team at gunpoint

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Afew years ago, some employees of the mobile phone giant Ericsson were being taken to a conference in Athens when their bus was hi-jacked by masked men with shotguns. Luckily, someone saw what was going on and phoned the police (on a mobile, of course - we aren't told the make). The cops arrived in full, heavily armed, gung-ho, trigger-happy, "lie flat on the ground!" mode.

Somewhat less fortunately, the "hi-jacking" turned out to be a team-building exercise. The terrorists were actors and the guns were fake.

(That's the actors' guns. The police guns were extremely real.) The clever-clogs who organised it presumably wanted to see how people bore up under pressure - whether they'd work together or fall apart, who would be stiff-upper-lip No l Coward and who the cowardly, working-class Richard Attenborough. (In Which We Serve, 1942.) As it turned out, the episode came close to tragedy, and presumably Ericsson senior management had some red-faced talking to do.

The business world seems fond of running bonding exercises - paintballing, extreme sports, tests involving barrels and planks of wood. But very little of that sort of thing seems to go on in education. Are we missing something? Or are we too sensible? We do have teams, after all. Schools have had senior management teams (SMTs) for some time, and they're gradually changing into senior leadership teams (SLTs).

Think of your own SLT for a moment. Can you see them in the woods with paintball guns? Would all your lives be better if they did a bit of that? I'm with those who believe you can't forcibly give a team life outside of its purpose. Where the common purpose is clear, bonding comes naturally. A soccer team, for example, has very specific aims. It doesn't need any other kind of glue to hold it together. Whether the members drink together or go pony-trekking in north Wales is not really important.

It's the same, I suggest, for your own senior leadership team. It exists to give life to a vision of what the school should be doing for its young people. If the vision is clear, shared and understood, and if the team members have the right mix of skills and personal qualities, the bonding will follow.

Recently, I read The Wisdom of Teams (1993) by Jon R Katzenbach and Douglas K Smith, which is something of a classic now. It contains some good stories about successful teams, including the seven managers who, against huge opposition in their own firm, found a way to transform the fortunes of the Burlington Northern Railroad in the United States. They thrived on adversity, supported each other and took risks, using the "Jesuit principle" - it's much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

As you read, it's not difficult to see in them a team of committed leaders turning round a school in trouble: so much would be the same - doubters to be convinced, sceptical bureaucrats to be circumvented, resources to be blagged and used creatively.

And yet, when it comes to school improvement we seem to be fixated on the solitary role of the "super head", driving a lonely and exhausting path through the jungle of difficulties and opposition. Maybe we should be thinking much more about the team as a whole. This is what the Burlington team was like. "The seven men developed a concern and commitment for each other as deep as their dedication to the vision they were trying to accomplish. They looked out for each other's welfare, supported each other whenever and however needed, and constantly worked with each other to get done whatever had to get done."

Is your leadership team like that? Or is it more of a weekly gathering to which not everyone is all that committed because they have individual concerns they feel they should be getting on with?

Katzenbach and Smith place great store by a team being mutually accountable, and point out the difference between "the boss holds me accountable", and "we hold ourselves accountable".

"The first case can lead to the second," they write. "But without the second there can be no team."

It's just possible, isn't it, that if some of the driving energy that characterises the transforming head were put into creating a real, mutually accountable, mutually supportive and visionary senior leadership team, then wondrous things might come about?

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today