The power of one

29th September 2006 at 01:00
Leadership and Liberation: A Psychological Approach. By Sean Ruth. Routledge pound;39.95

In an era when charisma is hailed a cure-all, Gerald Haigh salutes the pyschological rigour of an alternative view of good leadership

The failing leader, an iconic literary and dramatic figure, awakens in us a heady mixture of "there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God" terror and delicious schadenfreude. So, when the condition is described in Leadership and Liberation, the natural reaction is a knowing smile - in this case, enhanced by the fact that Sean Ruth's style carries, at least in this passage, more than a hint of Cranmer's 1662 Book of Common Prayer: "They have become scared and have cut themselves off from the people around them.

They operate in isolation and do not listen well to the thinking of other people. They do not ask what other people think in case the people actually tell them."

At that point, I reflect on the headteacher in crisis. Behaviour and performance are worsening, teachers are disengaging ("I don't see why I should bother"). Meanwhile, our beleaguered head is shut away, feeling powerless, sick, and beginning to question his ability as a leader. What's needed? A personality transplant? Or what about today's oft-preferred solution, the brand new, charismatic head?

We've seen it tried - and we've seen it fail. Ruth quotes JM Burns in Transforming Leadership (Atlantic Books): "At best, charisma is a confusing and undemocratic form of leadership. At worst it is a type of tyranny." The trouble with charisma, he writes, is that if the leader is too dominant, then not only are followers disempowered, but so is the leader because there is no return flow of energy and ideas. "Leadership is not just about personality," he argues. "It is also about relationships and processes of interaction. It is something we do and not just a way that we are." It's an optimistic message because if leadership is an act of will, everyone can do it. You don't need to change who you are, you just need to change what you do.

Ruth's particular vision is of what he calls "liberation leadership", whereby people are set free to deploy their skills and talents. "This puts the emphasis on the leader being a facilitator, a listener, a team builder, an enabler, a developer of other people and, fundamentally, a thinker."

That's what the best schools are aiming for already. What Ruth adds is the organisational psychologist's depth of analysis. For example, the book covers in some detail the very common shared propensity to behave negatively towards leaders (isolating them, ceasing to offer support and feedback), especially when failure's in the offing. Where does it come from?

Part of the explanation, Ruth writes, is that throughout the long process of growing up, attempts to take the initiative are often trodden on - "If you are not going to do it properly, then don't do it at all."

From that early experience, we take into adulthood a particular view of leadership. We've seen poor, authoritarian, oppressive leadership being modelled and it hurts: "We still carry the residue of that hurt into our relationship with other leaders." Ruth goes further in a long middle section, looking at the attitudes and class oppression within which leaders have to lead.

So, what's to be done? The book has plenty of advice about non-confrontational, calm, listening approaches to what Ruth calls the "Leader-member exchange", whereby the emphasis is on always being aware of the effect on the other person. "What we perceive as helpful advice may be perceived by others as criticism or interference."

Engaged as we are in that greatest of all endeavours, the education of the young, surely we are already in tune with the humane and moral values that Ruth sets out? Maybe, but it's the sticking with them through thick and thin that's hard. Ruth recognises this very well: he includes a telling description of the pressures on school leaders, which contrasts the leaders' initial expectations of how teachers and parents will behave with the reality.

Success, then, is a hard-won prize. "It is not about finding it easy," he writes. "Umberto Eco said that the real hero dreams of being an honest coward like everyone else, that they are always a hero by mistake."

This is a splendid book: lively and original in thought, crystal clear in its argument. It's about leadership in general, of course, but as you read, you constantly see its themes and arguments in the context of school. It's a pity that its aversion to the notion of charisma has extended to the cover design. Management advice is a highly competitive market, where new titles scream for attention on bookshop shelves. Alas, this one manages little more than a discreet cough.

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