Skip to main content

Wanted: a leader who follows

The Government still seeks a director for the National College for School Leadership. The job may require charisma - but not too much, argue John Benington and Chris Husbands

AFTER AN extensive trawl of schools, local authorities, universities and the private sector, the Government has so far failed to find a leader for its National College of School Leadership. The post has been re-advertised, and there are reported to be differences between the Department for Education and Employment and Downing Street over what is required. So why is it proving so difficult?

We all have our favourite images of leadership: the dignity of Mandela, the heroism of Schindler, the moral courage of Gandhi, the arrival of Tony Blair in Downing Street. These iconic examples show that gifted leaders can make a difference.

These images also underpin the Government's expectations for headteachers: good heads, they insist, must have "a vision" and show "strong leadership" to ensure continual progress.

The celebration of successful headship - knighthoods for heads who have turned difficult schools around, or through the portrayal of superheads in the Lenny Henry TV series - often echoes the images we harbour of successful leaders.

But the reality of leadership is different. Research suggests that charismatic leaders can prevent as well as create change. The Harvard leadership guru Ron Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, says that good leaders are those who "give work back to the people". Effective leaders often address gaps between what is and what might be. They also rely less on dramatic gestures and more on creating circumstances that enable others to meet challenges.

This is often true for schools, too. Effective heads are not necessarily proselytisers for major change, whipping a workforce into line around their "vision". Frequently, they are careful thinkers able to identify issues facing their school, community, staff and pupils. They develop frameworks in which teachers can pose pressing questions about curriculum and methodology. They give their schools space in which to answer such questions. An old Chinese proverb summarises it well: "As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their presence."

Research suggests that different organisations need different kinds of leadership - and different sorts of leader - at different times. Sometimes charismatic leadership is needed, sometimes not.

For some schools, a clear vision of how things might be different, how performance can be raised and changes pushed through is essential. We rightly applaud heads that have "turned schools round" but for every failing school turned round by charismatic leadership, there are a score of others which have been sustained and saved from failure by committed teams of people, including governor, PTAs, dedicated classroom teachers, andor dinner ladies.

Evidence also suggests that the superhead that addresses failure may not be best placed to support a school's longer-term development. Elsewhere, "strong" charismatic leadership inhibits change that needs to come from below - as in many cases of innovation in Japanese industry, where creative solutions have come from frontline workers and cross-cutting project teams.

Heifetz has another good phrase: effective leaders "protect the voices of dissent", allowing critics to develop ideas. Our experience is that needs vary from school to school and over time. Sometimes they need strong leadership from the top, sometimes team-building from below. Good leaders know a school's needs at a given time and have a repertoire of leadership styles. They learn when to pressure some teachers and not others and help teachers understand that they and their pupils are the crucial agents of change.

"Leadership", it seems, is the latest business school fad - but leading a school is different from business leadership in several respects. Business leaders must produce measurable results for their shareholders. They choose their markets and drop unprofitable areas to improve performance.

School leaders must work within the communities they serve, and their impact goes beyond the school boundaries. Heads often need to help teachers show measurable improvements, but heads also know that the results of their work will not be overtaken by the next year's tests. They work with children but the long-run results of schooling will become apparent when the children are adults.

Schools stand for learning, and for the values learning implies. Westminster and Whitehall can set parameters and performance targets, but the generation of learning takes place in a creative interaction between teachers and pupils. Good heads can foster a culture of stimulus, enquiry and discovery in schools and act as a catalyst for the lifelong learning this society needs. School leadership thus involves creativity and moral and spiritual leadership as well as the management of organisational performance.

Perhaps for these reasons, the Government has yet to find a suitable leader for its national college. In its search, it might remember that while the director will need an outstanding track record in leadership, "he or she will know there are no textbook answers in leading schools. The would-be director will also need the less fashionable virtues described by Aristotle as "practical wisdom", and more recently by Seamus Heaney as "earned wisdom".

John Benington is professor of public management and Chris Husbands professor of education at Warwick University. They co-ordinated Warwick's contribution to the DFEE's thinking about the National College for School Leadership.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you