Tips from the lion tamers

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher

A secondary head of physics with whom I used to lunch occasionally would get up from the table with the words, "I think I'll now go and walk self-importantly around my department."

Redolent with the self-parody that enables many teachers to survive, the pronouncement says much about the frustrations of a job in which the responsibilities are heavy, but where most of the power lies in the head's study. No wonder so many heads of department, like middle managers everywhere, fall into a litany of grumbles about the head's inability to understand their problems or solve them.

It's not like that with lion tamers. They also have to survive and perform in the presence of superior power, but they don't go home and grumble about their lions. "That Simba! Guess what he did today, just as I was putting my head in his mouth? After all the raw meat I've given him and the effort I've put in with the whip and chair."

Good lion tamers - the ones who die in their beds - do not grumble. They know it is their job to be positive and manage what is, in terms of physical strength, a pretty one-sided relationship.

So it is, says writer Steven L. Katz, with middle managers working with their bosses. In his book, Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and other Tough Customers, he uses his knowledge of lion taming to advise on what's known as "managing up" - the art of keeping control of your important relationship with your boss. Part of that means making your boss look good. As Mr Katz points out, the lion tamer is not there to belittle the beast.

"One of the secrets of the lion tamer is to present the lion to the audience." (That pedestal is no accident.) Many books and papers have been written on managing up. One of the best and clearest free resources is a paper by Jacques Horovitz on Rediff.com. But the key lies in accepting and carefully learning your head's objectives, preferences, talents and values, and then lining up your own efforts in support. This is simple good sense.

Oh, and another good piece of advice passed on by Mr Katz from the lion tamers: "Remember that you never go into the cage without knowing what kind of a day the lion is having."

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