You don't have to be crazy to run schools, do. Wilshaw and the eccentricity of leadership.

Conan the SENCO
Sir Michael Wilshaw wants Heads to be more 'odd' according to this week's TES.

While Sir Michael was not encouraging his audience to don flat caps and prowl buses, he did argue that the best heads think outside the box. “Don’t be afraid to be slightly maverick,” he said. “Do things out of the ordinary; don’t necessarily be a conformist. Strange is sometimes good. The best heads are often quite odd people - I think I was one of them.”
 I will avoid the open goals that this offers, however tempting.  Dame Wilshaw draws opprobrium like St Sebastian attracts arrows whenever he says anything, and adding a breath to the mountain of mockery he normally obtains would be as churlish as criticising 50 Shades of Grey for being 'a bit shit', which it is. I have to say, every moment I have spent working within a hierarchy indicates that he speaks the truth.

I once ran an achingly unhip dungeon of disco in Soho; sent a new general manager, we all waited for him to turn up. When he arrived (late) he was a six foot Sicilian dressed chin to boot in SS leather, shirt slashed to the sternum like Conan, a line of white crumbs pointing a guilty finger at his sinuses.
'My Name is Alessandro Balisteri,' he said, without warning. 'You f*ck with me... I F*CK YOU ALL!' And he stalked off, back to wherever nut-jobs went when you couldn't see them.

'When the school bell goes- just TRY it.'
My point being that, in the debauched swamp of the Soho scene, he was a perfectly evolved leader, and believe me, you did NOT f*ck with him. Nobody came late; nobody pinched a denarius, and it was all good until he was busted for Dysoning barrels of beak while rattling equally mad Italian hookers in the office. No one's perfect.

I've worked with other Captains of mention; a TGI Fridays (don't; just don't) where Tim was the anti-Luca, running 100 men and women like a circus, knowing everyone's birthdays, arriving first and leaving last, fuelled by confidence and self-belief and charm; like Vic from Passemores Academy, the blessed martyr of Harlow who burns with so much determination that no one gets left behind that you fear for his lifespan. There is no template for leadership, no check list of standards that, once met, obtain the magic formula, because it is a magic formula. Leadership as a concept has been picked apart by the witless jackals of middle management. Here is my checklist of what a good leader needs to have:

1. A spine
2. A clear idea of what they want
3. Knowing what the Hell they're talking about.

See? The data is clear.
Beyond that, I'm out, because it can't be reduced to a shopping list of invertebrate inanity, usually written by people who are themselves invertebrates. Leaders can be friendly or frigid; democrats or tyrants. The necessary descriptor would be 'do people get behind them' and 'did it work'? Neither of these can be predicted or prepared in formula. As the renowned educationalist Baroness Mercury once said, 'It's a kind of magic.' Like so many things in education, it is predicated on concepts that are relative to the observer and loaded with social context, which makes them essentially resistant to reduction. You could bottle lightning more easily.

The problem for school leaders is that decades of micro-management that would make the Vatican seem bohemian, and being judged by cold, cold data has resulted in their jobs being reduced to that of administering dogma, then looking up fearfully  to see if they have been good servants or bad. I feel for anyone labouring under that yoke. Your role, one of the most sacred in society, has been turned from shepherd to bureaucratic piñata. Voltaire said as much: countries should be guided 'by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude.' WHile you might hope for a more democratic model, the essence is true- leadership requires men and women, not to aim for some swampish compromise where no one is happy, but to have a dream and create it, despite the world's insistence to the contrary. Which means convincing, and where necessary, coercing.

Not unlike classrooms, funnily enough.

Wilshaw's right, you  know. Good leaders are often a bit odd. That's what makes them good leaders.


  1. In my classroom career I worked with 6 head teachers. One was an outstanding leader; three would be the first to admit they were far from perfect but did their very best to set a good example and provide leadership at all times...and two should never, ever have been allowed in a school, unless they were carrying a bin liner. When I said that over a lunch with 5 even more experienced colleagues at my last school, the unanimous, Pythonesque response was, "You were lucky!" Not one of those colleagues said they had ever worked for a head teacher they could describe as outstanding.

  2. This does NOT surprise me, alas. Mind you, good people at ANY level is the exception, it's just that at the upper end it's more important because it has more impact on a broader theatre....

    Thanks for the comment


  3. Really enjoyed that! I think the same can more or less be said of great teachers - the best are always a little 'different'.

    My experience of the working world outside of schools is so limited that I remain unsure as to whether the promotion of mediocrity into leadership positions is as commonplace in the general working world as it appears to be in teaching. I would add to your list of what makes a good head 'must not take shit off kids'. There is nothing more demoralizing than seeing kids disrespect the 'senior leadership team'...


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