Should our leaders be like the Pontiff?

8th April 2005 at 01:00
One of the more interesting questions raised in the recent coverage about the Pope's death came from Dr Lavinia Byrne, a well known Catholic commentator. She asked whether John Paul II's place on the world stage had been achieved at the expense of ignoring voices of dissent. She believes that the challenge facing the church, and its new Pope, will be to maintain authority while listening to alternative views. Her question points to an inherent tension in our notion of leadership - between a clear sense of direction and the ability to change opinion.

Leadership has become a very fashionable term in education. We have a national college dedicated to its promotion and we have changed the names in the school hierarchy to reflect this new trend. Those at the top are now "leaders" rather than managers. Effective management has been replaced by effective "leadership" as if to highlight a different quality in the latter, lacking somehow in the former. It is unclear, however, whether all this amounts to much more than a change in labels.

Glance at any person specification for a headship and the difference between leadership and management seems to rest on the term "vision". All the other qualities required are management skills. Prospective heads are expected to have implemented policies that led to an improvement in pupil attainment, know about financial management and information technology, have headed up teams of people successfully, understand new government initiatives; be keen to promote equal opportunities and so on. The lists may vary slightly but the aptitudes and experiences required remain in essence the same.

However, as well as these, school governors also seek "dynamic" people "with vision" as if vision is an accessory that adds a certain style or panache to the day-to-day job of administration that is actually required of the headteacher.

Robbed of its substance in this way the idea of vision has been domesticated. Because of course vision is not content or value-free.

Lavinia Byrne's quarrel with the Pope was not that he did not have a clear sense of direction but that she did not agree with some of his views - notably about the role of women.

In the same way strong leadership is not an inherently good quality - it depends on where we are being led.

Undoubtedly the character of some schools is determined by the strength of the headteacher's leadership. But headteachers who doubt and question their own direction, who test their ideas against the views of others, can create a healthier atmosphere. In this way dissent is less an outside influence and more a state of mind. A leader will only acknowledge other voices if they value dissent in the first place.

But this type of self-questioning leadership, however effective, is not as cosy as might at first appear. For these heads will demand that all their staff and governors question themselves too. They will require constant challenge to the status quo, a questioning of our comfort zone. Perhaps for this reason such heads are thin on the ground.

For all the hype about the desirability of leadership, most governing bodies faced with a choice between a candidate who will rock the boat or a safe pair of hands who will manage things nicely will take the more conservative option. As Shaw once said of saints - leaders, however much we may need a good one, are not easy to live with.

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