Let them fly solo

8th November 2013 at 00:00

During a recent session with school leaders, I described the phenomenon of "helicopter parents", who hover above their children and see it as their role to remove every obstacle from their path.

I've witnessed helicopter parents clearing the way for their offspring at school, university and in employment - the most extreme example was a parent of a child in their thirties complaining when they were unsuccessful in applying for a senior management role. Obviously such behaviour is well-intentioned, but it does nothing to foster the resilience and independence that young people need to survive in the modern world.

The notion of the parent - and the school leader as "parent" - brings to mind protection, support, reliability and aspiration. They have a huge role to play in transferring their values to their children through role-modelling and the reinforcement of certain behaviours. They also provide a backstop through their unconditional positive regard and, related to that, their forgiveness.

Underpinning all these behaviours is a commitment to the well-being of their offspring, which is governed by notions of duty and self-sacrifice. Of course, we all know of parents who do not embody these qualities and the untold damage that this can do to a child.

Just as with a parent, a school leader should be able to manifest desired behaviours in a balanced manner, with the aim of eventually allowing their charges to be able to fly solo.

So what is a "helicopter leader"? Like the helicopter parent, the leader overcompensates and seeks to take away the need for teachers to think for themselves. Everything is done for them; every decision is made for them. On first impressions, this sounds great. Unfortunately, just as with the helicoptered child, the teacher gradually loses any capacity to think for themselves or to build resilience. The crunch comes when such a leader moves on or when conditions require teachers to adapt. Cut adrift, they lose confidence and the quality of their work deteriorates - if it was ever of a high standard, given that they merely complied with instructions.

We must guard against the temptation to become helicopter leaders. Instead of making benevolent decisions on behalf of our staff, we need to help them to make decisions for themselves and to deal with challenges successfully. This is more difficult than simply handing over the controls. But if a leader truly aspires to create a positive environment then they need to climb out of the helicopter and get alongside their colleagues in the spirit of partnership - with a view to setting them free.

And so, with apologies to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I'll close with my amended version of his famous saying: "There are only two things people need from a great leader: roots and wings."

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at personal development consultancy Drummond International.

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