My Mistakes in Middle Leadership: The danger of visions

Spent an inspiring and amazing day at #TLLeeds18 yesterday, run by the wonderful and amazing @agwilliams9. It was such an interesting and thought-provoking day at which I met some challenging and provoking speakers, and gave a talk on the mistakes I made as a HOD.

The first talk was by Paul Warwick about the leadership lessons in Shakespeare’s Henry V.   This was most convincing when discussing the private journey of leadership, the impact and pressure that leaders face, and the need for them to take stock, find mentors and confidants, and in the ‘performance’ and emotional labour that good leaders have to summon up.

Even where Paul’s talk inspired scepticism from me, it did so in a powerful and thoughtful way. My talk, in the afternoon, also hit on similar themes of ‘vision’.   I have big problems with the idea of vision, and especially with the example of Henry V being presented as a model for how leaders should devise and implement a vision. Paul asserted that Henry’s vision was one of service, that through dark places he successfully brought his band of brothers to a victory that reflected this vision.

I would counter that expecting leaders to create a vision, then use this to impose direction on a staff is dangerous. Rather than service, sacrifice and legacy, the correct Henry V analogy is of profligacy and hubris.  The story could be re-cast as that of a medieval king spending thousands of lives and draining an exchequer in order to fulfil a grand vision which essentially boiled down to ‘let’s conquer France so that I can be richer’. Furthermore the whole hollow enterprise is shown to be fragile when Henry’s son is unable to maintain the vision so hard won at the great sacrifice of Henry’s subjects.

My own time as HOD was driven by a mixture of hubris and fear, and it didn’t end that well, to be honest! My presentation was a reaction to the conference circuit which encourages us only to talk about our successes, and never to examine our failures. I described the things I did right, and the stuff I got wrong:

  • Moving too fast and being scared of getting stuck at HOD;
  • Thinking I had to be amazing at everything;
  • Ignoring or forgetting the intellectual interests of my subject;
  • Ignoring the advice of more experienced colleagues; and
  • Buying too closely into the vision(s) of my Head teacher and the myth of ‘transformational leadership’.

A lot of the presentation was about my failure to disagree with the changes that were happening in school, but this mistake was all mine. I had drunk the cool-aid.

This led me to think about why things had gone wrong for us as a history team, and the role that my consumption of the cool-aid had in the events around us. I looked back at some of the NCSL guidance that I’d read when I was a fast-track teacher, which I realised constantly pushed my generation of middle leaders to take up the mantle of ‘transformational leadership’.

As you’ll see from the presentation, a core feature of ‘transformational leadership’ is having a vision.  Julian Stern, a philosopher of education at York St John University has suggested that vision is a dangerous thing for a school leader to have, given its connotations with religious prophecy, its susceptibility to take over from external visions and priorities (especially in circumstances of high levels of external accountability) and its tendency to supress dissent.

The effects of ‘vision’ can be seen in job adverts that invite people to ‘join us on our journey to outstanding’, and in HE strategy documents that set out a vision to ‘achieve gold TEF’.  It can also be seen in the labelling of difficult staff members as ‘energy sappers’ and the failure to engage with legitimate concerns that people have when change comes to their institutions. Vision leads to rich and well informed perspectives being silenced. Paul Warwick referred to a section in Henry V’s leadership journey in which he ‘deals with the traitors’.  This brought a chill to my mind given our current political climate.

My go-to philosopher is Isaiah Berlin and his suggestion that principles are what’s needed, rather than visions, coherence and consistency. I offer the following three:

  • Check your intentions, then check them again. Do you want your staff to ‘feel’ that their opinions are valued, or do you actually want to value them and their opinions? Is your vision, or the way you implement it, good for your pupils, or just good for your figures?
  • Work with people – practice leadership that is more inward, more participatory.
  • Bear in mind your responsibilities, to your pupils, your subject, and your team. You also have responsibilities to the people above you in the hierarchy, not just to follow or support, but to challenge and provoke.

Here’s the presentation: My HOD mistakes

McDonald’s, Voluntaryism and School Meals.

F W Jowett, Labour Councillor and then MP for Bradford, was instrumental in pushing for municipal meals for hungry children.

I’ve been doing some historical reading recently for a potential project about school meals in turn of the 20th Century Bradford.  It is lovely to be reading and thinking about history again, after a long break, enforced by taking up new responsibilities at work. This reading has involved finding out about the links between the birth of the Labour Party and local activism focused on the need to feed poor school children. What’s fascinating is the way that a child’s poor diet was often characterised as having its origins in various educational, financial or moral failings on the part of his or her parents.

One of the things that I enjoy about the feeling of immersion in a new historical problem or topic is the way that my reading and pondering helps me to see the present day in new ways.   So my eye was obviously drawn to the recent stories in the press(1) which claimed that Michael Gove, environment secretary, past education secretary (and secret top-fan of this blog) had expressed empathy for the way that poor people find solace for their difficulties in fast food.

Suggesting that turning to food in order to help the you cope with life’s problems implies that there is a real choice about how money is spent, perhaps in the same way that choices are made about spending money on booze or fags. Furthermore, the implication is that more education about food; or that more effort, or perhaps a more stoical approach to these difficulties on the part of ‘the poor’ would lead to improvements in diet.

So, there’s also an implied suggestion that failings on the part of those in poverty are the main cause of their difficulties. This suggestion is very similar to the arguments used in Bradford in the 1890s and early 1900s to fend off calls that municipal authorities should take responsibility for feeding poor school children. It was argued that the response should be voluntary, should mostly take the form of advice and education, so curbing the worst excesses of the poor. In turn this would enable them to better feed their own children. It was feared that state intervention would engender fecklessness.

In Bradford the arguments around municipal feeding of children reached a peak in November and December 1904. A series of letters to the editors of the Bradford Telegraph from elaborately anonymised proponents and opponents of municipal feeding illustrate the arguments. “Caractacus” wrote, on the 9th of November, of his frustration that F. H. Bentham, the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, was “in favour of limiting all measures of a corporate kind, for dealing with the unemployed, to the board of Guardians.”. On the same day Bentham replied that he was in favour of council ‘works, where those efficient could be employed without any loss’, referring to a kind of ‘job-creation’ for the poor in times of depression or economic contraction(2).

Bentham goes on to describe the poor law over which he presided as ‘the last remnant of serfdom’, and that any effort to expand the work of the guardians was ‘maladministration’. This portion of the letter illustrates the key themes in Bradford Liberalism’s objection to more municipal action very clearly and succinctly and is worth reading in full:

“I want philanthropy [charitable effort] to lift people out of the slough of despond, to elevate character, not to take away burdens but to help them and teach them how to bear their burdens. I desire to see municipal expansion in the direction of increased opportunities for useful employment and self development; I want to see family ties strengthened and the homes of the people happier, each an independent unit within its own little castle, and not a little bastille. I would far rather see one big ‘bastille’ with all the undesirables in it (and we all admit that there are some), than see all our English working class homes pauperised by municipal subsidies. […] the gulf that exists between the emancipated classes and poverty should be bridged over by the spontaneous action of wise philanthropy. […] I honestly believe that for every such family where poverty is not self-inflicted there is another family willing to give the necessary assistance”.

The main pillars, of what Keith Laybourn (3) (somewhat unfairly and perhaps teleologically) calls the ‘shibboleths’ of Bradford Liberalism can be readily seen in this extract:

  1. There are concerns about ‘character’, both from the perspective that collective municipal subsidy will erode character and thereby the ability to deal with the ‘burden’ of the English working classes, and the existence of the poor of bad character (the ‘undesirables’) who should not benefit from municipal aid. The answer to these failings of character are moral and educative, but not transformative (not to take away, but to teach how to bear’).
  2. There is also the related fear that subsidies impact on the freedom of the working person – that the Poor Law is a form of serfdom that keeps the working class in a downtrodden state, the implication being that it removes the natural impetus to improve one’s conditions and thereby imprisons each family in its own ‘little bastille’.
  3. Finally there is the appeal to charity, the claim that there existed enough charitable effort in order to address the problems of what might be termed the ‘deserving poor’. This has implication of the scale of the problems and of the response required of them. Underlying all this is a belief in the natural order. ‘They’, ‘our English working class’, ‘the people’, have ‘burdens’, whereas others (the unspoken ‘we’) have charitable obligations for ‘wise philanthropy’ to those ‘where poverty is not self inflicted’.

The over arching fears are therefore that lack of education or lack of character is what drives poverty, and that collective action will only add to and amplify these problems. Again there are more recent echoes of these fears in the response to the recent Audit Commission report on the inefficiency and impact of the Universal Credit reforms.  On a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘You and Yours’ Ed Boyd, from the Centre for Social Justice and a key advisor to Ian Duncan Smith, described the immoral impact of the welfare system that disincentivised work and created economic dependency, and the need for ‘front line’ decisions about who needs further support or even information about support that is available (4).

The debates about feeding hungry children in Bradford in 1904 still reverberate in current policy discourse, more than a hundred years later.  Reading the newspapers of 1904 gives the more recent evolution of tax-credits, Universal credit, food-banks and ‘the Big Society’ valuable context and suggest that these echoes need to be explored further.

Furthermore the years before and after 1904 represent a liminal period in which attitudes towards the poor were shifting quickly. Whilst some, such as Keith Laybourn, emphasise the role of the Labour party, in terms of organisation, campaigning and activism, in moving public-opinion in relation to feeding in Bradford, there is also a need to consider the role of cycles of unemployment, and individuals in trying to organise responses to these within paradigms of municipalism and voluntaryism (5) in seeking to understand how such important changes occur.

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2 – F H Bentham. “Mr Bentham and the Unemployed: Subsidies and Citizenship.” The Bradford Daily Telegraph. November 6th, 1904. British Newspapers.

3 – Laybourn, Keith. “THE ISSUE OF SCHOOL FEEDING IN BRADFORD, 1904-1907.” Journal of Educational Administration and History 14, no. 2 (1982): 30–38.

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5 – Bolam, Fiona Louise. “Working Class Life in Bradford 1900-1914 : The Philanthropic, Political and Personal Responses to Poverty with Particular Reference to Women and Children.” Doctoral, University of Huddersfield, 2001.

5- Cahill, Michael, and Tony Jowitt. “The New Philanthropy: The Emergence of the Bradford City Guild of Help.” Journal of Social Policy 9, no. 3 (July 1980): 359–82.