Leadership - Model yourself on Machiavelli

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Inspiration for good management can be found in the unlikeliest of places

If you're going for a leadership role in a school, you may be asked which thinkers and leaders have influenced you in your development. I have always answered with Alexander the Great and Machiavelli.

If the panel are listening, there's a bit of a surprised moment and a searching look to see if I'm taking the mickey. But I'm not. These two figures provide some valuable lessons, applicable to all school leaders.

Leadership is all about people: recognising strengths, good deeds and actions, and gaining support for the next part of the journey. Alexander the Great was a master of this. After a battle, whether he was injured himself or not, he would walk among his troops having a word with those who had distinguished themselves or whose valour he had been told about.

Leaders should take note. We all like to be recognised for doing good work and the actions of an effective leader should reflect that: she or he should know who has done something noteworthy and take the time to recognise that person's contribution. This is particularly important when things are not going so well. A quiet word or mention can make a huge amount of difference. But it must be genuine and heartfelt.

This approach ensures that the school will continue to improve and develop without the necessity for the senior leader (of a faculty, house, key stage or school) to be present 100 per cent of the time. It doesn't matter how individually magnificent one person is, they cannot do everything all of the time, and that is why we group together in teams. Collectively we are far stronger than individually, and following Alexander's lead of recognising achievement guarantees that the group has legitimacy and support.

Alexander was also a master tactician. He taught me that great things come about because everyone is working towards the same goals with a clear knowledge of their individual contribution, and that when it goes well the credit is shared by everyone involved.

He also demonstrated that the opposite is true: when it hasn't gone so well, a good leader takes the responsibility firmly upon themselves and then unpicks what needs to happen next, using the capabilities of their team to get where they need to go.

As for Machiavelli, his famous book The Prince is more than 500 years old, but human nature hasn't changed much over the past half millennium. Most people wince when I mention Machiavelli as my management guru, but that's because they revert to the erroneous general interpretation of his work, which reads it as a meditation on the manipulation and exploitation of others, with a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and deception.

What I take from the book, however, is that you shouldn't spend time trying to befriend your enemies. Instead, remove them and their influence.

Enemy action

All leaders are challenged at some time in their leadership. It is important to keep an open mind when this happens, so you can work out whether or not the challenge is justified. Have I done something daft? Am I leading the team down the wrong track? Does this person need more of a professional challenge than they are currently getting? Are they ready to lead their own team?

Sometimes the challenge will require you to make changes, but just as often you will encounter people intent on being your enemy no matter what you do.

In the latter situation, follow Machiavelli's advice that it is important to get rid of that person as quickly as possible, minimising damage to them, you, your team and the school. You should ensure that you act with humanity and dignity, but if one individual is intent on damage it is the students who will suffer, and they deserve nothing less than everyone working for their benefit. You should not be ashamed or afraid of being assertive in this situation.

Unconventional they may be, then, but Machiavelli and Alexander the Great provide useful lessons for school leaders. It just goes to show that there are learning opportunities in what can seem unlikely places.

Don't write off potential influences on reputation alone. Find out for yourself what there is on offer and take those lessons that will best make you a more effective leader.

For me, supporting those who contribute, seeing failure as my responsibility and parting ways with those intent on disruption are some of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my leadership career.

Dr Fiona Hammans is executive principal of three schools in Oxfordshire run by the Aspirations Academies Trust.

Let us know who your leadership role model is and why by tweeting us at @TESProfessional


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