We need team players, not lone warriors

4th March 2011 at 00:00

So, Sir Michael Wilshaw imagines himself as Clint Eastwood - or at least the characters he has played in many of his movies. The head of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, east London, told a conference last month that headteachers need to be "lone heroes" like the cowboy hero in Pale Rider, suggesting they should set about beating everyone else into submission.

Sir Michael's ego and sense of self-worth are astounding. There is no danger of him having a lapse in confidence any time soon, though many would say with good reason.

Mossbourne Academy has been rightly heralded a success. In a short period it appears to have become the most famous state school in England, certainly among politicians. I would not dream of criticising it, not least because to do so would leave me open to accusations of jealousy or sour grapes. But Sir Michael's comments still make me feel uncomfortable.

He apparently sees himself as a "lone warrior, fighting for righteousness, fighting the good fight". This sounds to me too much like those well-meaning white missionaries of old who headed out to Africa to convert the poor misguided natives to Christianity, whether they liked it or not. He goes on to say that school leaders should reject the "new trends" towards shared or distributed leadership (these hardly seem "new") and that heads need more ego.

Yet common sense and experience tell us that any institution that is solely dependent on one individual is going to be in trouble if that person is run over by a bus, or is taken ill, or indeed if they simply move on and retire. It concerns me that a headteacher, so admired at the top levels of Government and feted for running one of the country's best schools, should promote a style of leadership that is untenable and unsustainable.

A headteacher who is not able to share power with others in the school is devaluing their colleagues' skills, abilities and experience. This is a waste of talent and resources and is therefore not a good model for developing leadership for the future.

Power is a transitory thing and moves around over time. If we look at history we can find numerous people who have ruled with absolute power until the tide has turned and their empires have come crashing down around them.

For current examples we need only look at what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, where leaders who ruled with absolute power are now facing an epic backlash. Power is slipping through their fingers and as yet there are no experienced leaders to take up the reins. Autocratic government means that others have not been given the opportunity to practise leadership. This will leave a power vacuum.

Of course, headteachers need to be clear about their vision and direction of travel, but that vision is never set in stone and needs to develop over time. Those who don't listen, don't consult and don't recognise changing contexts, and who plough on with a particular policy or plan despite serious opposition, are not proving their manhood and their strength - they are being foolish.

Sir Michael says heads should not be afraid to "upset staff" if it is for the good of the children. I agree with that: I don't think it's possible to do the job of a headteacher without upsetting staff and several others besides. However, this does not mean we have to bully them and dismiss their ideas and suggestions. We (and I use the word "we" rather than "I" deliberately) need to bring people with us so that they are part of our vision to raise standards and to ensure the well-being of our young people.

Schools are complex organisations. We don't deal in widgets or commodities, we deal in people. We need to practise what we preach and act as role models for staff and pupils alike. Sir Michael offers a model where he is right and nobody else has an opinion worth listening to.

That model is about building "his" empire. I feel sorry for the schools that he is looking at with a view to adding them to his conquests.

I am sure Sir Michael will not be at all bothered by my comments and would say that I have a lot to learn from him. If I were to be more ruthless and had more of an ego then perhaps my school would be outstanding like his, instead of satisfactory.

Maybe he is right. But personally I would rather model myself on those heads who lead outstanding schools and who do share leadership. They know that it's not all about them. It's about the team. If we have to play cowboys, I'm going to stick with my posse.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher of George Green's secondary school in east London.

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