The former chief inspector had the humility to admit he had made a big mistake as a manager. The Navy's leadership training could have put him right, Gerald Haigh reports
Chris Woodhead says that when he was chief inspector of schools he made a huge mistake which nobody dared to tell him about. As a result, the Office for Standards in Education lost a legal challenge from Crown Woods comprehensive about its inspection report.
"I hold myself responsible," he confessed at a recent conference. "The person in charge should create a genuinely open culture and I had kidded myself that was the case when clearly it was not."
At the same conference Mr Woodhead went on to express his doubts about the teaching of leadership in education, and to suggest that it is all a question of common sense.
It was a coincidence that almost as Chris Woodhead was speaking, I was looking at the Royal Navy's own leadership training. I was interested in how it might work in an organisation that is already disciplined and hierarchically organised, with ranks visibly displayed - "built-in leadership", you might say.
Their response was enthusiastic to the point where I soon found myself in Admiralty House in Portsmouth, a stone's throw from HMS "Victory", talking to Vice-Admiral James Burnell-Nugent, Second Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command. With all the confidence of his rank he told me that, yes, all aspects of leadership can be taught. He is the author of a booklet on leadership ("Leadership in the Office") that has lots of resonances for leaders in school (see box).
"I used to think you were either a born leader or you weren't," he says.
"It wasn't until I was on the staff at Dartmouth (where new Royal Navy officers are trained) that the penny dropped and I realised it could be taught, like French or Latin. Of course, some will be better at it than others, but absolutely everyone can improve."
Leadership, he believes, is the most important attribute of all, ahead of technical competence or administrative ability.
"You can delegate everything else," he says. "But you can't delegate your own personal role in leadership, and I believe absolutely that it's the core of our capability." Which is why, as a task group commander at sea, as well as signing orders drafted by his staff, he also wrote his own signals, explaining to everyone, at all levels, what was expected of them. (Now where have you heard of that being done before?) Neither he nor anyone else in the Navy thinks that leadership is just for people with impressive epaulettes. You may join at the bottom of the ladder, as what the Navy calls an "able rate" but within a few years, if you show promise, you'll be guided towards a command course, with a strong leadership element, at HMS Collingwood, the huge shore establishment near Fareham which is home of the Royal Navy's command training group.
Commander Bob Holmes, who runs the training group, believes that the qualities it stands for run through all levels in the Navy.
"Maybe the task is to take two men with mops and buckets and clean out the heads (toilets) or maybe it's 'Captain, take your ship round the world and report when you get back'. Either way, in order to complete this task, the magic ingredients of command, leadership and management have to be there."
Collingwood training uses the well-established ideas of two leadership gurus - Ken Blanchard for senior ratings and John Adair for the more junior levels. Though they differ in emphasis, both share the assumption that you lead people with differing levels of competence and understanding. An important part of your leadership, therefore, lies in suiting your style and methods to the task and your people's needs.
Some of what happens at Collingwood is exactly what you would expect. So, yes, there are team-building exercises, including exhausting days and nights in the Brecon Beacons, with observers checking tick boxes - I watched one exercise in which a person had to lead a team taking a heavy barrel over a cliff and a chasm.
There is much more to it than that, though. People are expected to prepare and deliver verbal and written briefs, orders and debriefs. There is classroom work, too, some of it devoted to straight administrative, or management skills - interview techniques, personal record-keeping.
But what, I wondered, about that very recognisable Woodhead dilemma of how to be a leader who is strong yet open to suggestion? Part of the answer is seen in the way that the Navy builds teams of people who themselves understand leadership and also trust each other. Chief Petty Officer Tristram Job, who watched the cliff and chasm exercise with me, said: "A good leader will consult the team, sometimes right at the start. If someone has a good idea then the leader will change the plan to accommodate it."
Crucially, though, as he explained, it is still the leader's plan, modified to include the new suggestion. "So if things go wrong he can't shift the blame to the person who had the idea."
Lieutenant Commander Eddie Garlick, one of Bob Holmes's senior colleagues, agreed, but pointed out that it depends on what's happening at any given moment.
"When I was flight deck officer on an aircraft carrier, and we were working out where to park the aircraft, one of my team might come up with a better way of solving a problem. But if we had a crash on the deck, there was no time for discussion, it was me giving a stream of orders."
The navy recruits very selectively. Talk to sailors and you realise that these are people to be led and motivated, not subjugated by discipline. One young man summed it up for me. "Enjoy the course? That's probably not the right word. But it's given me 100 per cent more confidence in myself."
Commander Bob Holmes had the last word, though, making sure (and here Chris Woodhead would approve) that I didn't portray the Navy as too hung up on leadership theory.
"Don't forget," he said, "We exist to deliver controlled violence to the enemies of the Queen."
Now if you're looking for a new school mission statement...
Ken Blanchard's training organisation www.blanchardtraining.comJohn Adair's methods summarised at www.falconbury.co.ukalf.php. Search for Leadership in the Office at www.royal-navy.mod.uk under leadership book
THE VICE-ADMIRAL'S WAY
* Realise that your relationship with your boss will be watched closely by your own team.
* Do not have favourites among your sectional heads. Work with them even-handedly. Uphold their relationship with their section members.
* Devote some personal effort to internal communications every day.
* When giving instructions there are three key requirements: clarity, clarity and clarity.
* Of all aspects of leadership, one of the most testing is having to tell a member of your team that they are not doing well, or are lazy.
* Appraisal and report writing is a clear personal responsibility of the leader to which you should probably devote more time than you already do.
* Do not take out your irritation with one team member on everybody else you meet that day.
* Do not confuse decisiveness with undue speed in making decisions.
* Trust is the partner of delegation.
* You probably know what it is like to work for someone who is chronically miserable. So if being cheerful does not come naturally to you, do try.