‘I solemnly swear to put my pupils’ interests first’

19th August 2016 at 01:00
The medical profession is buoyed by the modern version of the Hippocratic oath and school leaders could also benefit from a public declaration of shared values

The medical and education professions share a common commitment to ethical practice. However, unlike teachers, many graduating doctors are required to take a pledge, or swear an oath, regarding their commitment to ethical practice.

This “declaration of a doctor” as it is more commonly referred to in modern universities, is rooted in the ancient Greek concept of the Hippocratic oath. In my new role working with many large commercial companies, I find it fascinating that a number of them have adopted the concept of a public declaration, pledge or oath that aligns their behaviour with their stated values.

I know many of us from a public service background will treat such an oath as an empty and vacuous gesture purely designed for commercial benefit. However, I would suggest that there is much to be gained from a public commitment to a set of behaviours that are rooted in our professed values.

At the core of the doctor’s declaration is the concept of “do no harm’. In actual fact, the phrase never featured in Hippocrates’ version of the oath, although he did use something similar in Of the Epidemics: “The physician must…have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”

I actually think the above is a better rendition of the concept than the more simplistic “do no harm” or, as it sometimes represented “first, do no harm”.

Unintended consequences

When you transfer this concept to educational leadership, it presents two contrasting challenges that should inform every leader’s decision-making process. Unfortunately, the reality is that such is the desire to take decisive action that little heed is given to the harm that might be a consequence of that decision.

Throughout my career, I have encountered educational leaders who have caused much greater harm to their schools or organisations than any good that might have resulted from their time in post

Throughout my career, I have encountered educational leaders who have caused much greater harm to their schools or organisations than any good that might have resulted from their time in post. There was a common feature that characterised their leadership behaviour: a singular focus on the task at hand. That is, “fix the problem” or “hit the target” – regardless of any consequences that might arise from that solution.

Singular, goal-focused intentions often lead to behaviours that ignore the complexity of the world, where intervening in one part of a system can have an unintended consequence on another part of the system. Behaviour like this is often caused by perverse incentives such as: career progression; a dependence on what has worked before in different situations; a failure to recognise the interconnected nature of the world; or, simply, a misplaced confidence in one’s own power and position.

Such behaviours don’t necessarily result in immediate negative consequences – but they do eventually lead to the equivalent of a leadership “butterfly effect”.

This metaphor suggests a hurricane might be influenced by the flapping wings of a distant butterfly weeks earlier. In a similar fashion, the small, unintended negative consequences of goal-focused behaviours gradually accumulate until they reach a proportion that damages the organisation, and those who work there, to a point from which there is no return. And so I think it helps leaders to return to the example of the Hippocratic oath, for at its heart is the principle of holistic practice.

The modern version of the oath, used in many medical schools today, defines it as follows: “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems if I am to care adequately for the sick.”

In a similar fashion, great school leaders don’t just focus on the task in hand. Instead, they see the problem in context. Such leaders understand and anticipate potential unintended consequences and have the wisdom, when it is necessary, to decide that it is better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.

Of course, as ever, the challenge for leaders is that a reliance on doing nothing can become just as debilitating as always taking action.

At the core of great school leadership is an absolute commitment to set of values that govern a person’s day-to-day practice. Given Scotland’s huge commitment to improving the quality of school leadership, perhaps it’s time for us to consider developing our own “declaration of a school leader” – which might prove to be as important as any additional qualification or training programme.

So what might such a declaration include? For what it’s worth, here are my top five suggestions: “I swear to fulfil, to the best of my ability and judgement, this covenant:

  • I will always put the needs and interests of the young people in my charge at the forefront of any decision I have to make.
  • I will always seek to translate my promises into action.
  • I will never put my own personal needs above the needs of others.
  • I will not use my position as a justification for being right.
  • I will always remain true to who I am.”

From my personal experience, I need only to think back to the example of my own father, himself a doctor, who was guided throughout his life by a commitment to a pledge to serve that shaped his very existence.

I wrote this the evening he died: “Not many swear an oath and keep their word/But you held it through a lifetime/And stretched it to a way of life.”

Don Ledingham is chief executive of Ceannas – Leadership By Design and a former education director and secondary headteacher in Scotland

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