V is for a vital read

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Michael Duffy thinks teachers could learn a lot from this study of leadership in different contexts

The Four Vs of Leadership: Vision, Values, Value-added, Vitality

By Peter Shaw

Capstone pound;14.99

No, not another treatise on the leadership of schools, and certainly not another confident headteacher (or even executive principal) on the theme "We did it my way." Peter Shaw was a civil servant (and Church of England lay reader) who made a second career in executive coaching. Thirty years in senior posts in five of the great departments of state convinced him that leadership was an essentially generic skill and one that should not be (indeed, could not be) compartmentalised, isolated from the leader's personal qualities and life.

The Four Vs of Leadership, drawing as it does on the perceptions of leaders in many contexts, summarises his philosophy and his often homely advice.

It's a framework, he says, that has "worked just as well with high-performing people in the city as it did with bishops".

And as it comes with a glowing endorsement from Sir David Normington, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills until his recent translation to the Home Office, and quotes extensively from educational luminaries such as Ken Boston (chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) and John Dunford (general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders), that should go for teachers too.

His "four Vs" are vision, values, value-added, and vitality: for all the alliteration, a rather clunky list. None of them, of course, is new to the leadership debate, but the emphasis here is different. "Vision" in these pages is primarily a personal vision, not an institutional one: it is "how you would like people to describe you, now and in five years' time", or the "essential element that makes us ourselves". Vision is fluid, though, and open to change, grounded always in "political and ethical realities".

The same is true, he says, for values - and he offers a list for us to choose from. Are our choices "robust" enough for the future, he asks; would those around us recognise them in us? And are our values and our vision congruent with those of the businesses or institutions for which we work? He quotes Ken Boston, an educational leader driven by his commitment to equity of opportunity and outcomes. But is this all that different from motherhood and apple pie? The institutional values and vision statements that he gives us here, from organisations as diverse as Accenture and the Highways Agency, are predictably bland and undemanding.

And what, precisely, is "value-added"? In this text, that's difficult to answer. Citing John Dunford, he suggests that it is "doing what other people cannot do, adapting your approach to meet the circumstances" - which doesn't take us very far. But he stresses cogently that the good leader has to be a good servant, too, and that reflection and experiment are always part of the leader's make-up. By their nature, though, these qualities are difficult to quantify. In the end, he is left with the unconvincing argument that magistrates and jurors, for example, may create "value-added"

as surely as chief executives and principals should, by virtue simply of doing their job honestly and well.

That leaves "vitality". He argues persuasively that the energy we need to work and lead well isn't simply down to work-life balance. Creative work, after all, is an energy source; momentary encounters in an otherwise humdrum day can be similarly life enhancing; the sharing of achievement is always uplifting. Leisure, however important (and headteachers will smile in disbelief when they read of the high-flying chief executive who never, ever, takes work home), does not invariably produce these effects. It needs to be managed; as with work itself, the four Vs apply. There are many sound suggestions as to what this means in practice.

So this is really an old-fashioned self-help book, updated for our times.

"How to Get On", perhaps, "without wrecking your life and the lives of those around you". True, the tone is relentlessly upbeat: threatening talk of "outcomes" or "the bottom line" or even "Ofsted" hardly marks these pages. True, some of the advice is pretentious ("You like Beethoven string quartets? Try some modern chamber music") or sententious ("try thinking creatively while on top of a double decker bus or riding a cycle") or simply unnecessary ("eat bananas if they are special to you"). And true, the style - rather like Thought for the Day with bullet points - can be intrusive.

Overall, though, Peter Shaw's new book is helpful, down-to-earth and honest. It is almost too honest; too inclined, perhaps, to take the media-savvy slogans of modern mission statements at their face value, and too reluctant to admit that leadership is easily contaminated with less persuasive Vs. Venality and vindictiveness, after all, are not unknown. But its stress on listening as a vital leadership skill is more than justified, and its personal, anecdotal flavour makes for very easy reading.

All prospective school leaders will find value in it.

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