Leadership: What to take from May’s (and Corbyn’s) lack of it.

I’ve been thinking about the leadership of both May and Corbyn, and what this tells us about the frailties and shortcomings of modern leadership. It is indeed in a sorry state.

BUT, as we always reiterate to all our pupils, education is all about learning from mistakes, errors and misunderstandings. So, rather than blame and moan, there are some positives that can come out of this period of epic leadership failure.

Let’s start with Mrs May. Her speech on Wednesday was dreadful. It reminded me of an address given by our headteacher when I was a Y4 teacher. That address was delivered to a group of fourteen or fifteen staff. The head admonished the whole group for being divisive and negative, without giving any examples. ‘The atmosphere was tense’, ‘teamwork was being affected’, etc etc. I sat there totally unaware of what I had done, or what anyone else had done. But the respect for the head began to drain away with every second that he spoke. Afterwards, some were furious, others were aghast. The head never really recovered his credibility.

This is how Mrs May has tried to lead – a sort of living definition of passive/aggressive equivocation.

She has also tried to be friends to all. Instead of uniting people, she has lost respect from just about everyone. She has bent this way and that, giving the impression that her principles are illusory. Her only aim appears to be survival in power (though as I write there are rumours of a cabinet plot).

Golden rule. Be clear and unambiguous if you are unhappy about something, and tell people to their faces. Then move on. Mrs May has criticised various wings of her own party, and others besides, but then has gone in and done deals with them. Her authority has been irrevocably weakened.

The typical Mrs May- type headteacher is the one who does things ‘for Ofsted’ or because that’s what the latest trendy advisor has said is ‘in’. They don’t have any instinctive sense of where they want to take their organisation, so they rely on others to do it for them. This leads to constant flip-flopping.

Headteachers must decide what is right for their school, staff and children and stick to it, whilst welcoming feedback from all. This feedback may lead to small changes, some tinkering around the edges, but the core direction will not change once it has been set.

Don’t just run a school to get an Ofsted grade; look at Mrs May’s travails and you can see where it’ll get you.

Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, suffers from an inability to unite people around broad and inclusive principles. Maybe this is because he doesn’t have any, I don’t know. He then exacerbates this by deciding who is ‘in the tribe’ or who is not. He is like the headteachers I have known who exclaim in staff meetings – ‘you’re either on the bus with me, or not’ and then pick off staff, not on their merits, but because they are not showing tribal loyalty.

These headteachers miss the crucial point of their vocation (to make children’s lives and education better) elevating instead a guerrilla war of ‘who’s with me, and who’s against me’. Schools like these are typified by corridor intrigue, and toxic or confusing communications. In the worst of them, the children become a side-show, peripheral. I should know, I took over one of them which quite rightly had been placed in special measures.

Headteachers, who forever indulge in micro-political power struggles, demean their office. I’m sick of hearing praise for such and such a headteacher who threw a load of pupils out, or ‘got rid’ of half the staff. More than often, it betrays a deep lack of self-belief and a corrosive suspicion of everyone.

As well as being hopeless leaders, what also unites Mrs May and Mr Corbyn is an intense lack of good humour. They appear to be unable to recognise their own failings and make light of them, learning from their mistakes. I don’t think I have ever seen Corbyn smile. Neither come across as humane beings.

I was once accused by a senior member of staff as being a ‘smiling incompetent’ (bit harsh, it was my NQT year), and though the demands of the job have reduced my smiley moments somewhat, if you can’t show a human side as a school leader, then you might as well forget it.

Politicians are human too; being led by humourless cardboard cut-outs really must be demoralising.

So without wanting to sound flippant, it may be that a pre-requisite of all leaders should be the ability to have a bit of a laugh from time to time. (Apologies to Mrs May and Mr Corbyn if, in fact, they are a bundle of fun in private.)

I think there is a link here to self-appraisal. It tends to go hand in hand with humour. Having that self-check on one’s leadership traits, and be willing to change, is a sign of a good leader. I still make many mistakes, but they are certainly fewer now. I constantly question myself, probably too much.

So what are we left with to conclude? That leaders must be clear in their ultimate goals; be unambiguous with their communications; avoid being mired in micro-political battles; possess a sense of humour; and be self-evaluative.

So thank you Mrs May. Gracias Comandante Corbyn.

We have learnt a lot from you.

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