One of my favourite Leadership books of recent times has been “The Greats on Leadership” by Jocelyn Davis. The subtext for the title is, “Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers”. Naturally, I’d have preferred it had she had substituted “Managers” with “Leaders”, but don’t let that stop you from engaging in an absolutely fascinating read. Davis intelligently and passionately uses figures and stories from classic literature to offer her philosophy on leadership. Her knowledge and ability to explain is nothing short of brilliant.
Since reading the book, I’ve been reminded of two sources of personal inspiration; one an ancient classic, the other a modern one. I’ve chosen to write about them because between them they address aspects of collective and personal leadership which should resonate with those of us within the world of education.
We’ve all heard of the “Spartan spirit”, which is beautifully exemplified in the following short anecdote:
As Philip II of Macedon was conquering Greek city-states left and right, Sparta was left alone. Philip had achieved a crushing victory, and Sparta was relatively weak and without walls. Philip sent a message to the Spartans saying “If I invade Lakonia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans replied with one word, “If.” Philip eventually decided to bypass Sparta as it was a poor region and not worth the fight. Neither Philip nor Alexander attacked the Spartans while they ruled.
Now for some within education this tale might invoke a spirit of resistance and act as a battle cry. Instead, I leave you to observe and reflect on the assuredness and the self-belief contained within the legendary response. One word transforms the scene from one of hopelessness to one of hope; if.
Those of us who passionately care about school leadership, how we become transformed ourselves by enabling the transformation of others for the sake of our pupils, we need to invoke the Spartan spirit. We need to be acting with confidence, and yes, a proportionate amount of defiance in order to embolden our profession so as to protect those things which we hold dear; an exciting and broad curriculum, a love of learning and an understanding that not everything that counts can be counted, whilst not everything that can be counted counts. We do need to continue to move forward as a profession, working with a variety of partners – yes, some more easy to work with than others. We have to accept that the nation’s children do deserve to know that the providers of their education are accountable for their actions. However, our professional judgment and competency can only be devalued if we allow it. If.
As for the modern classic (and yes, 1971 does classify as modern…as I was born that year!), Dr Seuss is the gift that keeps on giving. I should write a blog on “Diffendoofer Day”, but for now look no further than “The Lorax”, a cautionary tale with the critically important message that if we do not take responsibility for the stewardship of the environment, then our own world will soon be like the one that the Lorax left behind.
One part of the book stands out for me. It’s the part when the boy, Ted sees the image below and ponders on its meaning.
The Once-ler then gives Ted a Truffula seed (the last one) and requests that he use it to repopulate the world with the trees. He then utters these immortal words: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
You can view the film version of this scene here:
As a school leader, what do you care about “a whole awful lot”? Which aspects of education’s environmental landscape are we at most risk of losing? (ladies and gentlemen, may I make a plea on behalf of the expressive arts?) The fact is, it’s oh so easy to look for reasons why the future might seem bleak. As long as the problem is seen as being “out there” and caused by others it gives us an excuse to remain less than we could be if we cared individually and collectively about the things which really matter.
Collective responsibility and collective leadership are both important and powerful, but individual responsibility comes first. “UNLESS someone like you (me) cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
What might this mean for you as an individual and as a leader?