The day that Buck’s Fizz tasted better than Champagne…

This week one of my core beliefs about leadership has been challenged in a way I never imagined possible.  To paraphrase Carl Jung: “We do not have to be a product of our genes or our experiences. We can be what we choose to become”.  In other words, personality predisposition does not have to define leadership success.  What matters is knowing one’s predispositions, playing to one’s strengths and “writing with your other hand” when you have to.

But today I am really questioning whether my interpretation of Jung’s work in the context of school leadership has been right.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a great reputation for supporting business and leadership learning.  Rarely, however, do they publish articles that solely focus on education.  But in recent months all that has changed.  Two previous articles have sent ripples around the UK educational scene, partly as a result of the somewhat provocative language they have employed.

But the article released today, which I have to thank Dr Ben Laker (@DrBenLaker), one of the co-authors, for sharing in advance of its publication, makes some even more extraordinary claims.  This is the first time HBR has written about education management, and it has the potential to change the way we think about school leadership and in particular who is predisposed to be a great school leader.

The research is based on a huge data set that tracks the backgrounds, behaviours, values, actions and, most importantly, the impact of 411 heads leading schools in challenging circumstances over the last seven years.  This latest cut of the data has enabled the research team at the Centre for High Performance (CfHP) to identify five types of school leader. What is fascinating is that their analysis has led them to believe that only one type is truly effective in the long-term.  So far, so good.

As readers familiar with my own work on leadership will know, I hold a strong belief that one of the key facets of great school leadership is to create the right culture and climate. All staff need to be doing the right things and doing them consistently well, day-in, day-out. Their efforts need to be valued. There needs to be a climate of healthy stretch and challenge that leads to continuous improvement. Get these conditions in place and discretionary effort will be high.

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So I thought it would be interesting to see how the CfHP findings mapped across to that model. The table below is interesting, and concurs with a lot of what I believe: successful heads build a strong culture and climate over time that creates a sustainable and long-term basis for pupils to do well. In other words they tend to be architects.

Type of Leader Impact on culture Impact on climate
Surgeon Focus on short-term wins

Diagnose and fix

Positive as short-term goals are achieved

Longer-term, frustration and exhaustion

Soldier Things are well organised

Efficiency and systems are the priority

Staff feel under-valued

People are worried they may lose their job

Accountant Bigger is better

We invest for the future

Staff enjoy the extra resource

Staff don’t feel challenged on their performance

Philosopher Talking about teaching and learning matters most

Systematic implementation and action weaker

Teachers feel more valued than other staff

They are initially inspired by the focus on T&L but become frustrated when things don’t improve

Architect Focuses on making the strategy a reality

Not tempted by quick wins that don’t fit with the plan

People feel empowered and trusted

It’s OK to make mistakes so long as you improve in the long run

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the analysis the researchers carried out (almost as an afterthought, I believe) on how these leadership types matched with a leaders’ subject specialism.

Type of Leader Impact on culture Impact on climate Academic background
Surgeon Focus on short-term wins

Diagnose and fix

Positive as short-term goals are achieved

Longer-term, frustration and exhaustion

85% PE or RE
Soldier Things are well organised

Efficiency and systems are the priority

Staff feel under-valued

People are worried they may lose their job

95% ICT or Chemistry
Accountant Bigger is better

We invest for the future

Staff enjoy the extra resource

Staff don’t feel challenged on their performance

78% Maths
Philosopher Talking about teaching and learning matters most

Systematic implementation and action weaker

Teachers feel more valued than other staff

They are initially inspired by the focus on T&L but become frustrated when things don’t improve

89% English or MFL
Architect Focuses on making the strategy a reality

Not tempted by quick wins that don’t fit with the plan

People feel empowered and trusted

It’s OK to make mistakes so long as you improve in the long run

68% History or Economics

The correlations are extraordinary. If this data is robust (and all the evidence from peer-review so far suggests it is), then taken to its extreme, teachers with a background in history or economics (or similar) should be given special consideration when it comes to leadership development and talent management. To do so, the HBR article argues, could add between £4bn – £8bn to the British economy! The Economist and Forbes also support this claim and have today written articles to explain how this can happen.

I’m not at all sure that the policy recommendations contained in the article will work in practice. But putting that to one side, I am still reeling from the findings that leadership predisposition, based on such a simplistic measure as subject background, can have such a profound effect on one’s ability to lead a school well.

If, like you me, you believe leaders are made not born, then we definitely need to encode exactly what it is that architects do, even if it would appear that some of us may have a bit of head start in the leadership race.

Polite conversation around one’s subject specialism will never be the same again.

You can read the HBR article in full here.

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7 thoughts on “The day that Buck’s Fizz tasted better than Champagne…

  1. I, too, found the subject correlations absolutely astounding. I thought back to Heads and DHTs I’ve personally known, and without question, I have known two surgeons (RE and PE), a soldier (chemistry), two philosophers (both Languages) and an architect (history). A truly remarkable fit.

    There’s no way one can make comments on this without challenge. Few things wind up teachers more than someone from another subject generalising about their own. So I’ll restrict my comments to what aspects of history might contribute to this phenomenon.

    Despite a growing, and tediously reductionist, neo-traditionalist view that history is about ‘knowing the facts’, most sensible historians takes knowledge only as a starting point for evaluation and interpretation. Absolutely hard-wired into the bones of any decent historian is the conviction that “right/wrong” dichotomies can only be applied to the most basic questions. The questions of how societies function (schools are, effectively, micro-societies), why events take the form they do, and how one might try to change human behaviour, are never straightforward, and always come with caveats and doubt. This doesn’t produce paralysis, but the need to analyse and evaluate before reaching judgements based on the evidence. And even then, one always understands that the judgement may prove unconvincing, so one must be ready to adapt it as necessary. True history is a study of the myriad shades of grey in humanity, not a black-and-white exercise in knowing what was, what is, and what will be.

    This study of the human condition, and healthy scepticism about the idea of right/wrong answers ensures that historians are going to be much more likely to reject quick-fixes, easy answers and simplistic postures. They will recognise the unknowable complexity of an organisation of hundreds of adults and thousands of children, they will seek out evidence, but will use that evidence only as part of a broad evaluative approach which takes into account the specific circumstances of their school, their staff and their students. No self-respecting historian would ever take the view that just because Method A worked elsewhere, it would automatically work here. That would defy everything they’ve learned about history itself. Show me a historian headteacher, and I’ll likely show you a Head who is producing a bespoke approach for their school, willing to adapt at all times, rejecting of false certainties and rigid paths, and convinced that s/he has to work WITH people, in all their complexity, rather than seek to impose their own model ON people. After all, there aren’t many historians who’ve not seen where that sort of top-down Leader Cult ends up…

  2. I am a theologian , RE teacher ! But I do believe that as a leader of a very challenging group of AP schools that have been consistently outstanding for 20 years I’m an architect. I’ve worked really hard on our culture. This research is concerning and interesting but like you I believe we can change our leadership. I have been challenged over the past 5. Years to grow and develop as a leader and I’m getting better each day.

  3. I’ve been reading everything I can on this since I first saw it and I wonder how many teachers will have read it too and be led to certain conclusions based on a heads specialism. As an Associate Headteacher with a PE specialism, according to this there is a high likelihood I operate as a surgeon, but I would consider myself to be far more orientated around long-term sustainable growth and plan quite carefully in this way. I’m not sure I could boast all the characteristics of an architect but that would be the type of style I would aspire to. I wonder what this might do to credibility or staff buy-in if they automatically conclude that you are of a certain style based purely on subject background. We have to be careful that it is clear that this research relates specifically to heads in challenging circumstances and cannot automatically applied to other contexts. Would be interested to see this research repeated for ‘good schools’.

    1. Statistics and correlation can be dangerous but you clearly don’t represent the 85% – well done. I teach a subject which relies a lot on models, concepts, matrices and other paradigms so any attempt to fit all heads/potential heads into just five boxes is futile. Nevertheless, as someone with potential 8/10 of a surgeon you can use this data to raise more questions than answers. Furthermore, it made us all question our predisposition for school leadership. Remember, as the author of the article mentions at the beginning one can change his/her predisposition by focusing on strengths and challenging the weaknesses.

  4. In many ways this set of correlations is very much like the Leadership Matters tools that analyse your personal predispositions. All of the people I have spoken to about that tell me that they recognise themselves in the findings. That is a great starting point for reflection on your natural tendencies and relative strengths or potential weaknesses but above all it highlights the areas in which you might wish to develop. This research is like that as a linguist I might therefore find that I tend towards some of the characteristics of the ‘philosopher’ but the clear success of the ‘architect’ approach will be a useful pointer towards the kinds of things I might ignore at my peril.
    To me however, whilst the relationship between subject specialisms and leadership styles is interesting, the significance of this research is the absolute confirmation of what many of us have been saying for years – namely that schools are not turned around by quick fixes and expanded egos, that embedded change cannot happen overnight (or even within a parliamentary cycle) and that an improvement journey involves mistakes and wrong turns on the way. That might not be a palatable message for some politicians or indeed some school leaders who want to take immediate personal credit for what they have done. As John Addison said: ‘when things go wrong own the responsibility, when they go right share the credit.’

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