Marks out of 10 for leaders in your life?

7th September 2007 at 01:00
I bet you've had some lousy teachers and bosses in your life. Looking back to your schooling, did you find your own teachers mostly fairly amorphous, with some stinkers and one or two great human beings who influenced you all your life? What about later? How do you rate your lecturers as leaders and the people who looked after your halls of residence? Did they do their job well, or were they more interested in their research or a quiet life?

When you first moved into teaching, how impressed were you by the middle managers, deputies and heads you met? Did they justify their positions, pay and status? I wonder if they used fear to get their way. Did they exploit knowledge and make you feel uneasy, never telling you whether you were doing OK? Did they exploit your youth and inexperience? Did they invite comments on their own performance, or was it all one-way traffic?

How many marks out of 10 would you give the early leaders in your career? It's an exercise well worth doing. Just think of all those bastards who got away with it. Doesn't it make your blood boil? Of course, things are much better now that you're a teacher and hold power over others. But are you any better than those who lorded it over you? How many out of 10 would those you are responsible for award you? Whether you are starting your first year of teaching or going into your last, you will be in a powerful position of authority. Do you know how others see you? Is it the same way that you see yourself?

The study of leadership in education has exploded in the past 10 years. But the most important lessons cannot be learnt by listening to theories or reading books; they have to be based upon self-reflection. That alone can combat the forces that erode the enthusiasm, warmth and vibrancy with which one came into the profession.

Important books are now appearing which help point the way to reflecting on oneself as a leader. Simon P Walker is as good as any in Leading Out of Who You Are and his new book, Leading With Nothing to Lose. Reading him is painful because it makes us realise how we use power and fear over others. I wilt when I think of the bad things I have done as a leader, nearly always out of insecurity. Walker points the way to how we can become more secure as human beings. Only when we do so are we truly fit to lead others especially in schools, where bullies at the top can pollute the whole atmosphere across the staff and pupils.

The direction is clear. If you are to develop yourself as a leader, you need to become more simple, not more complex; more calm, not more agitated; more humble, not more self-important. The key is that you can change yourself, and hence your school, not by blaming the lousy leaders in your past and present but by looking at yourself.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

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