Leaders of the gang

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Harvard Professor of Education, Howard Gardner, has examined methods of leadership. Michael Duffy finds it's all in the mind.

Howard Gardner developed his influential theory of multiple intelligence, first developed in Frames of Mind (1983). In Creative Minds (1993), he turned his attention to creativity, arguing that its essence lay in the creator's ability over time to change our perceptions and the frameworks of our thinking. Now, in Leading Minds, he draws a series of links between creativity and leadership. Both, he says, are multi-skilled, essentially individual, and more likely to be acquired than innate. Both, he argues, are states of mind.

His definition of leadership is important. It is, he says, the ability by word andor personal example, to "markedly influence the behaviours, thoughts andor feelings of a significant number of fellow human beings."

Against this benchmark, Professor Gardner describes the life and achievements of eleven 20th century giants: two leaders in their fields (the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer); four heads of great institutions (Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago before he was 30, Alfred P Sloan Jr, founding head of General Motors Corporation, General George C Marshall, United States Army chief of staff and agent of reconstruction after World War II, and Pope John XXIII); two pre-eminent opinion-formers (Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King); one re-shaper of a nation (Margaret Thatcher); and two trans-nationals (Mahatma Gandhi, inspiration of political activists world-wide, and Jean Monnet, architect of a united Europe).

To add breadth to his perspective, he sketches briefly the major leaders of World War II: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle, Chiang Kai-Shek and Tojo. Then he stands back and analyses the picture he has created.

The difference between creativity and leadership, he says, is in the method, not the message. Some men and women lead indirectly through their work or the ideas they create; others lead by direct communication with their chosen audience. All effective leaders, though, have in common a crucial characteristic: they convey a story to their followers. It is the ability to choose and shape this story, to reiterate it and reshape it over time, and to tune its intonation to the minds and understandings of its hearers, that marks out the leader.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Pope John XXIII had this ability, in high degree, Professor Gardner says, and they significantly changed the constrictions they addressed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, on the other hand, intellectual and charismatic titan that he was, never won the confidence of the academics he appointed, and JRobert Oppenheimer, though as director of the Manhattan Project was probably the most influential scientist in the world, was too complex in intellect and personality to win the confidence of the politicians he served. But Margaret Thatcher "had a clear cut story to convey" - and directed it unerringly at the untutored mind in all of us that yearns for life and politics to be a simple struggle between good and evil.

There are a lot of stories in the hearers' minds; the successful leader has to tell the one the audience wants to hear in the way they want to hear it. Baroness Thatcher would have appreciated Richard Nixon's observation: "When you're writing a line that you've written so often that you want to throw up, that's the time that the American people will hear it."

It's easy to find fault with the book. Professor Gardner's definition of leadership, capable of accommodating Dr Spock as easily as Saddam Hussein, is surely much too loose. It puts too little emphasis on the roles played by power and chance. How different, for example, Margaret Mead's career would have been without the editor who persuaded her to include a chapter on parenting in America at the end of Coming of Age in Samoa, or Margaret Thatcher's without the Falklands? It also underplays the influence of the media and persuasion industry.

But it remains of great interest, not least to teachers. What else, after all, is teaching but changing behaviour, thoughts and feelings?

There is certainly a message for headteachers and those who train them: Professor Gardner's thesis is that leadership should be taught, not caught. He argues that the pressures on effective leadership today, especially on leaders that aspire to be humane and comprehensive ("inclusive" he calls it) are insuperable unless we teach it better. Among those pressures are the insidious demands of managerialism. Direct leaders are often so overwhelmed by public and administrative demands, that they have no time for reflection and creativity.

Potential leaders, therefore, have to be encouraged to take risks, challenge authority, embrace the widest goals and values and articulate them with skill - in words and actions. They have to be taught how to present their chosen story in their own style, and to take time to think. Leadership, after all, is a state of mind. It will be interesting to see how the Teacher Training Agency, charged with producing the new headship qualification, responds to this refreshing but unfashionable point of view.

And not just the Teacher Training Agency. Howard Gardner is well aware that if we are serious about the wider aspects of leadership, in a society where democracy is diminishing to the level of crude populism, we need to teach it to all our students, not just potential leaders. Followership, in other words, may matter just as much.

In the age of the soundbite and all-powerful opinion poll, young people need to be taught what leadership involves, what can go wrong and what expectations of it they may realistically hold. That's not the same as the call for "more about our national heroes" that came last year from Nicholas Tate, the head of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It is a fundamental challenge to it. It would be interesting to hear Professor Gardner and Dr Tate debating their positions.

Inclusive or exclusive? The question is at the heart of the current educational dilemma, and Howard Gardner does well to ask it.

* Leading Minds - An Anatomy of Leadership. Howard Gardner. Harper Collins. Pounds 18.00. ISBN 0 00 255655 3

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, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today