Leadership - You can be mighty with a mentor

31st May 2013 at 01:00
Seeking regular advice from a fellow school leader will not undermine your authority

I Am going to take it as axiomatic that one of the key qualities that a leader has to have is the desire to serve. With that in mind, the question "should a leader have a mentor?" has an easy answer: of course they should.

Many leaders find this difficult to swallow, principally for two reasons: ego and the fear that being seen to be in need of support may undermine their authority.

The first reason is indefensible. Until we start producing perfect leaders, the opportunity to improve will exist in perpetuity. Also, the higher one climbs within an institution, the greater the responsibility the work entails and the greater the skill set required to perform satisfactorily. Having a mentor is a way of pinpointing where and how improvements should be made.

The second worry is more substantial. Being seen to be mentored is to acquire all the cultural baggage the relationship implies, of being submissive, imperfect and frail. The leadership role, rightly or wrongly, is seen as requiring the opposite: men and women of Olympian reserves of tenacity, wisdom and will. Anything less than this and the leadership illusion is dispelled. To some extent there is truth in this: staff do need to see a leader as a role model, working harder, with more integrity and to more purpose. Many look to leaders for inspiration and guidance as well as structure and direction. Who would follow someone who looks lost themselves?

And yet, and yet. The beginning of wisdom lies in understanding what we do not know, and the reality of being wise is to acknowledge one's own limitations. How is this circle squared?

The external mentor. Roman Catholic priests confess to other Catholic priests; the sacrament of penance is characterised by the dignity of privacy and the knowledge that the mentor is sympathetic. This should be reflected in the mentor-leader relationship. The best person to advise someone in the lonely post of leadership is another leader, from another school. Who can better understand the reality, the pressure and the dilemmas? This is no role for the dilettante coach - this requires someone who has walked the corridors before you.

The beauty of external mentors is that they can act as confessor, adviser, succour and prompt without any suggestion that either party is subordinate. The leader manages the tightrope act of respecting his or her own areas for development while providing a reassuring facade of competence.

That said, there is little to be lost and much to be gained by ensuring that your close colleagues are aware that you are mentored. It is entirely healthy for those around you to see that you are committed to self-improvement.

One crucial weakness of leaders is the need to appear invulnerable and infallible. This is especially true of those who have sought leadership to satisfy an internal need to justify themselves through status, but it can also apply to anyone possessed of humility. Terrified of being exposed as incompetent, people may overcompensate by affecting omnipotence and omniscience. That attitude can sink ships. The leader's mentor seen from this perspective is no longer just a useful facilitator of effective continuing professional development but instead the last safety valve before disaster. At best they can be the inspiration for the most rewarding stage in your career. And your most valuable ally.

Tom Bennett is director of faculty, Raine's Foundation School, Tower Hamlets, East London and ran nightclubs in Central London for eight years

IN SHORT

Every school leader can benefit from having a mentor.

They must choose this person or the relationship will suffer.

Formal, regular time should be set aside for discussion. Seeing the mentor only on an ad hoc basis will disguise issues that need to be uncovered. Formalising the schedule in advance will allow deeper problems to be excavated.

The mentor must have relevant experience in the appropriate areas. It would be best if they have a track record in evidencing success and overcoming adversity.

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