Leadership Matters?

Tempting though it has been to write this Master’s Voice about the “current situation”, I suspect that the Wellington College community has had its fair share of updates from me over the past few weeks. Instead, as we hurtle towards the end of the Lent Term, with the Upper Sixth about to go on examination leave and with the Lower Sixth poised to take on various senior roles across the school, I wanted to put down a few thoughts about leadership.

You may not be surprised to learn that I have read quite a lot of leadership books over the years. I started, but have yet to complete, an MA in Educational Leadership back in 2011 (four modules done, just the dissertation to go…) and this proved my first foray into the world of leadership and educational leadership literature. Fast-forward to 2020, a simple search on Amazon with the keyword ‘leadership’ yields over 70,000 results with titles such as “Imperfect Leadership”, “Quiet Leadership”, “Primal Leadership”, “Leaders Eat Last”, “Transformational Leadership”, “Humble Leadership”, “The Undefended Leader”, “Wholesome Leadership” and “Optimistic Leadership” (much needed at the moment). Where does one even start?!

The best leadership talk, particularly in the education sector, I have ever heard was delivered by a man called Andy Buck. Andy was Headmaster of two London state schools and his talk was as engaging and amusing as it was simple but profound. Andy’s conception of leadership is built around a three-way Venn Diagram with each circle entitled a) the future b) engage c) deliver. In the intersection of the three circles is the word LEAD. It’s a very simple model which locates the three key competencies of any leader as a) an ability to have a clear vision of what the future should look like b) an ability to build relationships and engage with others to create passion and alignment around that vision c) an ability to create effective teams, plan and organise, and get things done in order to take the organisation closer to that shared vision of the future.

The American author, Stephen Covey, writes that “leadership is a choice, not a position” and I agree with him. Ask any young person which leaders they admire in the modern world and many will say Greta Thunberg, yet this 17-year old holds no formal position of leadership or power. What she does have is a very clear vision of what a sustainable future for the world looks like, an ability to engage with and mobilise millions of like-minded people around the world primarily through the medium of social media which, in turn, has delivered remarkable results in terms of social action and global protests. An estimated 6 million people took to the streets worldwide on 27 September for the Climate Strikes inspired by this Scandinavian schoolgirl who started her protests by sitting on her own outside the Swedish Riksdag rather than attending school.

When I was 17-years old, I was not organising Climate Change protests. Like many of the current Lower Sixth, I was half way through my A-Levels and hoping for some form of leadership position at school. Head of House? Fingers crossed. House Prefect? That was a dead-cert! It may or may not come as a surprise that when Mr Seymour announced the appointments in June 1994, I got nothing. I wasn’t even made a Dormitory Prefect which was particularly disappointing because everyone was made a dormitory prefect!

Looking back, I realise a number of things. Firstly, that I was motivated purely by the kudos of the position, and not by the prospect of serving others and trying to make my House or my School a better place. In short, although I was disappointed at the time, Mr Seymour made absolutely the right call. Secondly, I understood quite quickly that not being a House or School Prefect wasn’t going to define me nor did it mean that I was somehow a failure. I just wasn’t the right person for those roles at that time. Finally, with hindsight, I now appreciate that you can develop as a leader, and a very effective one too, without a formal leadership position being conferred upon you. It’s certainly not for now, but I wonder if, one day, places like Wellington College will do away with Prefects and Heads of College.

By the end of term, our Heads of Houses, College Prefects, and Heads and Deputy Heads of College for 2020/2021 will have been appointed from our current Lower Sixth cohort. But my message today is primarily aimed at those who, like I did in 1994, miss out. I know that many will be disappointed but I do hope that they will understand that true leadership is a choice, a disposition, a way of being, and not simply a position. And I do hope that they will also quickly realise that, in the grander scheme of things, it isn’t a failure. Mr Seymour didn’t even make me a Dormitory Prefect in 1994 and I am now the Master of the best school in the world!

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