The Gentle Leader

Why do organisations exist? What is their purpose? What should be the ‘status’, roles and rights of different stakeholders? In the total history of mankind, the modern day organisation is still something very new, so to a large extent, we’re still engaged in a process of figuring out the answers to these questions.

The earliest organisations were tribes of hunter-gatherers where people came together out of mutual benefit. To serve one’s personal best interest entailed contributing your best to the group. Where necessary, there were traditions and norms in the group that enabled cohesion and a sense of duty and loyalty. leadership was often determined by lineage, sometimes by strength, size and simple power.

The industrial revolution brought very different kinds of organisations – far larger, more complex and with many more artificial processes to create the sense of belonging, commitment and common interest. There are plenty who are willing to say that the primary role of such organisations is to maximise value for the owners – everything else is peripheral. If this is true, then the duty of leaders is to organise all resources and stakeholders in the best possible way to achieve this aim of owner value growth. And further, those who are best at achieving this rise to the top and become the leaders.

We know that these things called organisations can cause some very odd human behaviour. For one, isn’t it pretty odd when we think about it that in organisations where only 13% of employees say they are engaged, all the employees turn up daily, on time and do the work they’re told to do, at least in principle. Further, we know from the work of experts like Stanley Milgram (famous obedience experiments) that the authority, status and title of being a leader can enable us to hold enormous and powerful sway over others. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiments, he took subjects in to a lab situation where fake other subjects were required to learn and memorise random pairs of information. When they made mistakes the subject was required to administer an electric shock to them. If they showed disquiet about doing this they were instructed to continue by an official, lab-coated technician who clearly held authority in the lab. Shockingly (pun intended), almost all subjects in this situation continued to administer ever stronger levels of shocks to the person in the other room, even when they were screaming for mercy or even appeared to have passed out due to the extreme pain. They may have shown stress and anxiety in what they were doing, but all the time the authority figure told them to carry on doing it, they continued.

Modern society has many ways, right from when we’re very small, of drilling in to us the importance of compliance with authority. Whether it’s parents or teachers in school, so much of what goes on is about obedience, compliance and rewards and punishments are used continually to reinforce the ‘correct’ behaviours. To my mind, this raises some critical questions that i believe we’re not asking enough and where we shy away from the very difficult discussions we need to have;

a) As parents and educators, we need to challenge ourselves in critical ways as to our role and duties when dealing with children. Is our primary duty to teach them how to comply? When schools put ‘citizenry’ on the syllabus is this about performing a role for society that will make people do what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told?

b) As parents and educators do we inadvertently find ourselves acting as the agents for compliance with the small minority who wield the real power in our society, whether those are politicians or big businesses? Do we see frequent examples in our school activities and the syllabus that are actually about reinforcing, for example, beliefs that consumerism is a good, healthy and positive way to exist in the modern world? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, teach children that having things, acquiring things and joining in the pursuit of the latest shiny objects is a positive, healthy way to live in the world – almost that it’s our duty? The reality is that whether we like it or not we live in a modern society where if a sufficient number of us switched to consuming more for our need rather than our wants, modern consumerist, production based economies would hit crisis very quickly.

c) As educators, especially in the private sector, we’re fond of selling our credentials on the basis of our inclination to develop young people who will be leaders tomorrow. However, do our actions match our words? If we teach children in elementary classes that blind obedience is the only way to comfortably succeed in our classrooms, are we actually producing tomorrow’s compliant followers and obedient grunts, rather than true leaders? Worse, are we, at times, producing those who will be very good at ‘kissing up and kicking down’ who will form the vital middle layer that enables the vast majority to be controlled by the tiny minority?

d) Further, are those of us engaged in International education in developing countries part of an inadvertent process where we trade off access to greater worldly knowledge and exposure for the efficiency of compliance that will ensure that those countries don’t rise to preeminence at the expense of our own ‘Western’ countries current superiority?

e) If we are leaders in the educational domain, why do our schools need ‘anti-bullying’ policies? Is bullying such a ubiquitous and natural activity that we need a deliberate policy against it? Or, is that we create such awful artificially competitive environments in our schools that children’s behaviour is steered towards acts of physical violence towards each other as an unfortunate byproduct?

f) If we are leaders in the educational domain, how should we lead if we wish to have schools/ organisations that are sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders and produce a caring culture that provides the right environment for children to grow and develop naturally?

g) What, if anything, can educational leaders already teach leaders in other types of organisations? It already seems to me that there’s ample evidence that old style leadership ways of manipulation, sticks and carrots and force/ pressure are not producing the outcomes that the organisations seek for the longer term. I personally know that I had been trained in many ways in the traditional and conventional late Twentieth Century leadership approaches and style during my time working for a major UK bank.

As I transitioned in to the education sector, especially in Asia, I realised that I had to un-learn so much of what i took for granted. If I had lead in education the way I had lead in banking I would have achieved very poor results. In my early career I often had bosses who would ‘provoke and cajole’ me to be very task oriented. People issues certainly came second. Even as I was later encouraged to shift my position, it was conveyed that you needed to give people a higher priority (after making sure that you make all the top-down targets that are set). So, you get the classic middle-manager stress – you’re told to be a people person and to carry people with you, whilst being managed from on high in a thoroughly task oriented manner. The result, for many is phony people orientation that is actually more manipulative than caring.

So, having been thinking about these things (what else do you do with a four day Chinese New Year break from the office?) I was stimulated to write this piece when i read this article from Greg Thompson of Bluepoint Leadership Development.

Bluepoint Leadership – The Gentle Leader

In the article, Greg makes the case that the time of the ‘wolves’ is over – leaders who use good, bad, honest and dishonest means to achieve their goals and to meet the simple ends of maximising owner value at any cost in organisations. Instead, he advocates for a form of leadership that is far more akin to Servant Leadership. Some make the mistake of interpreting servant leadership as the leaders making themselves martyrs to organisation and people, everyone’s whipping boys to be used and abused. I don’t interpret it that way. For one, in the pursuit of the best interest of the most, there are times when a servant leader is duty bound to get tough with individuals who put their self-interest ahead of the collective needs. Also, the leader has a duty to lead the debate around vision and the fundamental purpose of the organisation. They then owe it to the collective group to address issues of individuals whose ideology or actions are incompatible with that agreed vision. However, when they have to deal with such situations, they must maintain the dignity of the individual and deal with circumstances with compassion. people need to be given reasonable chance to align, but the key is alignment to a commonly agreed and shared set of goals, rather than something artificially imposed from the top.

The rewards for getting leadership right in this age are more motivated and engaged employees, the fish shoal swimming in a common direction, less worthless conflict, lower employee turnover and a greater ability to attract highly motivated, talented employees in to the organisation.

Some fear that gentler, more collaborative and open leadership leads to harm to the interests of the organisation. Plainly, if a company has the scope to introduce technology that will significantly reduce costs compared to competitors, but at the expense of 30% of employees losing their roles, it requires a very mature level of understanding throughout the organisation to engage employees in a debate that sees them put the organisation’s needs ahead of their own short term self-interest. However, if employees in that scenario knew that the alternative was loss of competitive position and maybe even the complete failure of the organisation, they may see and understand the need. The compassionate and gently lead organisation provides support and help for retraining and job alternatives for those impacted and the level of trust is such that they understand what needs to happen.

Community in organisations and trust isn’t necessarily built in those challenging times. Rather, it’s built over the long time whether things are going well or poorly, so that there is a surplus of trust to be drawn upon in those challenging times.

In conclusion, school and educational leadership comes in all sorts of shades and levels of quality. However, I believe we’re now in a time where the best of schools leadership offers lessons and guidance to the leadership of many more types of organisations about what it means to build community, to lead with caring and compassion and to give a genuine voice to all stakeholders whilst leading towards a vision which is truly inspirational for all stakeholders.

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Great School Leadership

Repeatedly, surveys and research have demonstrated that leadership is a more important defining factor between average and great schools than between average and great companies. I believe this is partly due to the fact that, unlike a company, there’s a far more significant element of ‘community’ about a school.

There isn’t a single template for what makes great school leaders. They come in all sizes, shapes and genders; introverts and extroverts and having taken all sorts of different paths to reach their roles.

Here’s a short post from Edutopia in which a blogger identifies what she believes are the key attributes:

Edutopia – What Makes a Great School Leader?

I can’t fault the three things she highlights; vision, community building and EQ. However, nobody should underestimate the point that comes through her personal experience in the last section so strongly – great school leaders care passionately about children.

Leadership Lessons

The CEO of CISCO sharing his thoughts and beliefs on leadership, all aspects are highly relevant for those who lead schools:

Fortune Interview

I was particularly struck by the things he had to say about the importance of shaping the organisation’s culture and the actions necessary to carry people with you in the pursuit of a vision.

New Leadership

When we have so many concerns about the mismatch between school education on offer today and the needs of young people, we have to acknowledge that little is really going to improve until we are prepared to look very seriously at leadership within education. In short, will we have the schools and the education we need and want unless we bring about significant changes in schools’ leadership culture – and what are the changes that would be necessary?

I found this article from a senior member of the Ken Blanchard Companies interesting. Whilst its talking about the new ways of leading required in all types of organisations (especially those that need to harness the creative and innovative power of the employees – is that now all organisations?) I found some parts especially interesting when thinking about where we are currently in school education.

Ken Blanchard Companies – Unleashing The Crazy Ones

The article identifies three core roles for the leader; catalyst, architect and coach. The latter of the three is something I’ve believed in for some considerable time as an effective approach to leadership in schools. I think part of the appeal has to do with the importance of the first of the three roles. Directive, controlled leadership that centralises power and authority, decision-making and accountability doesn’t ‘grow people’ or have the potential to engender passion, commitment and true innovation.

The ‘abundance mindset’ talked of doesn’t just apply with the organisation’s own employees, but also with outside vendors and contractors. As time goes on I have found myself less and less interested in squeezing out the best price or a bit of cost saving (scarcity mindset), and more and more interested in building high-trust relationships with vendors and suppliers that are mutually beneficial and based upon the willingness of the vendor to work creatively and effectively to support what the schools deliver.

The second role – the ‘architect’ is undoubtedly the most important when it comes to change management, innovation and educational reform. This is the one that potential worries me the most. I see far too much ‘going through the motions’, replicating yesterdays schools and just trying to do everything they did. It’s often considered innovation and commitment if leaders in schools just seek to do the same old, but to do it 1% better. However, I don’t believe these are the approaches that are going to bring us the schools and the education we need today and tomorrow. That is going to require the courage and commitment to lead teams that think in new ways, are willing to try new things and are not afraid to sometimes fail.

One particular area where this is apparent is in the harnessing of technology and ICT to bring about fundamental changes in learning processes.

A Depressing Read

If we’re all running in the same direction – does that automatically mean that we’re running in the right direction? Does it make a difference if that direction is the easier downhill, rather than the troublesome, effort-requiring uphill?

How quickly would trust erode, if doctors prescribed what their patients thought they wanted, instead of what their professional judgement, learning and experience says the patients should have?

Reading the following news report from the Chennai edition of TOI, nobody should wonder why educators no longer hold a preeminent position of trust and status in the society today, or why all private schools can so easily be portrayed by the government as self-serving, profiteering and untrustworthy.

It shows that the hurdles in front of us if we are to create an education system in India that is truly for the twenty first century are many. As far as I’m concerned – that just means we have to be even more determined, less tolerant of those who care more for an easy life mired in outdated ways and more resolute in educating educators, school owners and promoters and parents, business people and the wider community about why and how education for the new century must be something different if we are not to fail our children and the country.

Times of India – Chennai – article

10 ‘Big Ideas’ of School Leadership

I loved this piece for the pithy and thoughtful ideas about how to run an effective school. It’s a timely reminder that running any organisation where there are thousands of people with their own personal agendas takes courage – and you can’t please all the people all the time:

10 Big Ideas Article

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