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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

It’s time to look beyond the myths of great leadership

Millions of words have been written about leadership. I’m going to add a few more. The Inspiring Leadership conference is running in Birmingham this week: 1,500 educational leaders from the UK and globally coming together to be, well, inspired. The conference is organised by NAHT, ASCL and CfBT and is the perfect antidote to the policy-driven dreariness of recent weeks. There are great people out there doing great things.

The trouble with writing about leadership is that it is obscured by myth, fad and polemic, particularly when we get on to the topic of what makes a good leader (which is really the foundation of all other conversations about leadership).

Put simply, what we tend to pay attention to is not what actually matters. Human attention is naturally drawn to the dramatic; that is almost a tautology. Crisis, colour, tension, confrontation. The inspirational speech, the difficult decision, the showdown, the ‘killer’ strategy. Leaders themselves also like to give an image of confidence, foresight, control and agency. It’s not that these things don’t happen or matter but that the real substance of leadership is rarely like this.

Media and artistic portrayal of leadership is particularly vulnerable to this sleight of hand. It is not Henry V’s speeches that would have made the difference, but his ability to reliably feed and equip his soldiers over long and primitive supply lines. There are few odes to logistics!

Read General Slim’s memoirs of the campaigns of the fourteenth army in Burma in World War II, however, and you will see the reality played by careful planning. Military drama is of course, prone to focus on action, and to suggest complex and cunning plans that rely on many different pieces to fall accurately into place. An honourable exception to the rule is the black and white film Twelve O’Clock High, which focuses on delegation and performance management! (Worth a look but I apologise that it is politically incorrect in other ways.)

Modern television has the same bias. Outside political drama, senior leaders are rarely the focus of stories; they are often an obstacle in the background. But even dramas like Channel 4’s excellent Coalition focuses on the pivot of the negotiations rather than the years of day-to-day decisions under the leadership of Gordon Brown which both created the conditions for a coalition and prevented Labour from being a player in it. I don’t blame them: this would have been dull to watch. But let’s not mistake what we are shown for the essence of leadership; holding ourselves ready for those moments of greatness, when it is really the things we forgot to do while we were waiting for them that will define our success.

Leaders themselves, even really good ones, are rarely more accurate in describing what they actually do. Henry Mintzberg spoke about the ‘folklore and fact’ in the managers’ job in an important Havard Business Review article in 1990, saying “If you ask managers what they do, they will most likely tell you that they plan, organize, coordinate, and control. Then watch what they do. Don’t be surprised if you can’t relate what you see to these words.” He also suggested that most managers work no more than half an hour without interruption and that half of the activities conducted by chief executives lasted less than nine minutes!

My favourite example of the gap between fact and fiction comes from David McClelland, founder of the competency movement. He was hired by the US Navy to investigate the attributes of great captains. He asked admirals for their views, and got responses like courage and strategic skill. When he observed those captains who delivered the best objective performance, however, he found them distinguished by two main characteristics: meticulous attention to detail and a sincere concern for the welfare of their crew.

This anecdote gives us a clue for cutting through the myth of leadership. You first have to be clear what the results of an effective leader look like and then you have to observe some of these people in action. Direct observation is often difficult, so there are some useful proxies – confidential feedback from staff, contemporaneous diaries and ‘behavioural event interviews’ seem to work well. It is also important to control – effective leaders do some of the same things that all leaders do; good leaders get up in the morning, for example, and so do bad leaders. We need to understand what differentiates them.

I spent ten years collecting feedback and interviewing leaders in schools, the public sector and in industry. Much of their work depended on context and there were exceptions to every rule, but a few common characteristics stood out.

The most effective leaders were honest even when it was difficult to be so. They worked hard, paid attention and got involved. They had, and kept, priorities. The most effective leaders got closely involved in what would be considered fairly routine ‘personnel’ decisions. The most effective leaders understood and cared about the needs of those they worked for.

Although effective leaders had a sense of direction and were well tuned to the outside world it was rare to see blinding flashes of strategic insight, pivotal decisions that made or broke an organisation. Much ‘strategy’ is made up in retrospect, as a narrative created to explain reactions, damage control and blind luck. Great leaders were rarely personally innovative. Some had what we would traditionally define as charisma but many didn’t; presence, however, was common. They were not always likeable. They were smart but not always the smartest person in the room, and that didn’t bother them too much. They were often good communicators but not necessarily in the glib, inspirational or persuasive mode; rather, it was their intellectual and emotional honesty which enabled them to provide clarity.

This is not an exhaustive and fool proof list. My point is that if we are to develop the next generation of leaders in our schools, and equip them well, we must look beyond the rhetoric, beyond the folklore and see with open eyes what leaders actually do. We need an evidence base which is grounded in more than assertion. This is a role for the profession, who are closer to the reality, far more than policy makers.

The great thing about Inspiring Leadership is that it is rooted in the real experience of leaders in schools and other organisations.


09 June 2015