The heads who dare to have visions;School management

20th March 1998 at 00:00
Kevan Bleach on why those at the top should develop and share their dreams

Definitions of leadership abound. And like the Holy Grail, the quest for the truth about leadership could be elusive. However, the importance of one key component - vision - is acknowledged in chief inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report as crucial to helping heads provide clear direction for their schools.

Ex-United States president George Bush experienced difficulty articulating "the vision thing", but research shows that for many headteachers there is less confusion. Vision is what distinguishes them from mere "managers" and enables them to "turn around" a school.

The idea of heads as "visionaries" has limitations, of course. One-man (or woman) crusades may be the only way to energise the troops in an hour of need, but they tend to be ineffective in mobilising fundamental change. The reason is obvious: they fail to embrace the hopes and aspirations of the followers. So post-heroic leaders need to gain their followers' commitment and consent. Leadership, after all, is in the eye of the follower. It can take time, yet schools have proved to be powerful institutions for effectiveness precisely because their heads' vision has become widely grounded in everyone's activities.

I was engaged in research last year that involved a case study of the head of a successful Midlands comprehensive. It focused on how he has constructed his particular vision of leadership and the ways he translates it into reality.

These were the elements of his leadership style:

* Personal vision: articulates values on educational and social issues; stresses the importance of ethical and conscience-driven behaviour; urges people to take the "right action", not action based on self-interest.

* Organisational mission: develops shared values with other members of the school; communicates vision through words, documentation, actions and presence; searches for new ideas to energise his school.

* Personal behaviour: behaves in a way that makes the individual feel important; recognises the role of personal example relating to school values; subjects his decisions and actions to review.

* Organisation behaviour: embodies collegiality and teamwork, not dominance and compliance; generates a sense of partnership in decision-making; seeks to earn the allegiance of his staff through trust and openness.

An overarching sense of service and stewardship permeates this framework. It stands in contrast to the more traditional vision of leading as something those in top positions do to others.

Such leadership practice involves building a shared vision that binds leaders and followers in a morally competent school culture, as well as one that is efficient in terms of the Office for Standards in Education's criteria.

It is one thing to develop a vision, of course, but quite another to get it across. A tangible sign of how the headteacher in my research study voiced a sense of collective purpose appeared on posters around the school. He regularly asks staff for "words that have been significant pointers in their lives".

Research into the vision of principals in Hong Kong reveals a close link with sharing and shaping values. The head who seeks commitment to a vision among staff and pupils will give careful thought to words and symbols that communicate desired behaviour.

Values turn followers on. They feel fulfilled by working with someone who asks them to behave in ways they find uplifting. It puts the whole community on a common wavelength. A litany of "soul values" distinguishes leadership from managerialism. Collaboration, collegiality, conscience, honesty and integrity are just a few. Yet their cultivation appears to be absent from an initiative like the National Professional Qualification for Headship.

So how can they be brought into the fashionable domain of headship training? NPQH puts its raw recruits through a microwave burst of managerial competencies. When the time limit is up, out pops a fledgling leader - or that's the idea.

Partly to blame is the current orthodoxy that has atomised headship into a series of technical and managerial formulas.

Yet replicable skills statements or short training programmes do not really equip potential heads to exercise attributes like humility, integrity, passion or trust. Just think about it: tick the box on your NPQH form if you demonstrated "humility in decision-making" this week.

Where leadership is attitudinal, there needs to be a focus on personal development, reflective practice, interpersonal competence, communication, sensitivity and empathy.

The use of career histories is one way to help aspiring heads understand how leaders formulate and implement their visions. Placing novices alongside visionary mentors and providing exercises in observational analysis offer two other routes for leadership development.

Surely this would be an effective way forward of challenging the managerial outlook that dominates headship "training" schemes. Have we the courage, as a profession, to tell the Teacher Training Agency and OFSTED that this is the direction in which NPQH should be taking its participants?

Kevan Bleach is pursuing a doctorate in education at Lincoln University

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