Leadership rules but too many cooks I

31st October 2003 at 00:00
I had an early introduction to leadership. It was thrust upon me when I was designated manager of my five siblings for the duration of every summer break until I was old enough to rebel and take up paid employment. Looking back, I can see I learned skills that have since come in handy.

Pushing from the rear was necessary when herding them all on to a bus and checking that my initiative-taking sister had not diverged from the agreed plan and gone off at the last minute.

Leading from the front was the best way of choosing a spot on the beach where I could have a strategic view of their activities.

Short-term budget control was tricky. I had to judge whether or not to give into heart-rending pleas to spend our bus fare on ice cream and then face the miserable three-mile trek home later.

The greatest skill was timing of my action plan for the day. I found my judgment was rather subjective when it came to allowing consumption of our lunch in the absence of any timing device other than our rumbling bellies.

It was disastrous for me to discover that activities had skewed my thinking and I was hours off with our arrival home for tea. I would be sent out again with my brood until it was time.

So I am very interested in the rhetoric on leadership. I wonder if true leadership is a quality that can be learned or if it is something inherent in certain personality types.

It is easy to spot young children who will undoubtedly lead their peers, not always in the most positive of ways but lead an enthusiastic band nevertheless. In my experience these leaders are rarely high attainers in national tests but have a charisma that is attractive and irresistible.

Lists on what constitutes leadership skills are readily available to headteachers, the key criterion appearing to be the art of sharing the leadership task with a range of others in the school.

It is unfortunate that the exhortation to headteachers to nurture leadership in all of our colleagues coincides with the bitter reaction among promoted staff to the job-sizing exercise, with the requirement of aspiring chartered teachers to fund their own professional development and with the nursery nurses' campaign for improved pay and conditions of service. A request to overworked teachers to volunteer to front an initiative tends not to have anyone knocked over in the rush. They just do not seem to regard it as a privilege.

When the proverbial mess hits the fan, I have found that eyes are not usually directed towards a group of delegated leaders but rather towards the boss. If a head is not out there in front and taking it on the chin in times of crisis then, no matter how collegiate the leadership approach, he or she will be judged to be lacking.

It takes something like a mum collapsing in the playground when it is full of parents, waiting to collect their youngsters, to have parent leaders appearing from all directions. Quicker than you can say "school's emergency procedures", Jane Bloggses are taking control and making critical decisions. By the time the head arrives on the scene, a parent can be dealing with a blood spill without thought of protective gloves, someone will have called for an ambulance and a well-meaning individual will have whisked the woman's child safely away to who knows where.

It could be said that sometimes too many leaders can get in the way of effective management.

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in Aberdeen

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