Futures: Is Leadership the Most Important Subject?

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To ask the question above begs the further question: what kind of leadership? The form of leadership that occupies the vastest amount of attention in the world is political leadership. This attention makes sense: it is political leadership that wields the most power in a country, and in the world. Regardless of the fact that Winston Churchill, after several decades of political leadership, said wistfully, “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested,” Winston Churchill is still held up as a more inspiring model of leadership than any Head of School.

The question is a useful one, then: what kind of leadership do we mean? At our school, that is an easier answer than in the wider world, but it is a very good place for anyone, in school or out, to start. It is the kind of leadership that springs from good character. Good character is not mere good behaviour. It is worthwhile pondering the phrase uttered by the French grandmother who, watching her precocious and undisciplined granddaughter terrify adults and children alike at a garden party, merely smiles and says, “Elle a beaucoup de caractère.” She has a lot of character – and she will go further in life than many paragons of politeness.

The point is: to smelt good character from the raw ore of a human being requires a more robust crucible than rules of behaviour and admirable examples can produce. Nor should we overdo our ambitions; all we do in any aspect of our program at a school is give a student a start. We instill, uncover and reinforce habits, qualities and gifts a student already possesses. Nor should we get over-ambitious; producing a future Prime Minister is such a complex and unpredictable process that one can only imagine the devastating satire lying in wait for anyone who tries.

Besides, most of the leaders who touch most of us in our daily lives are not political leaders. In the admissions process, I always thought it was revealing to ask a prospective student whom he or she most admired; who were his or her heroes? In more than three quarters of instances it was a family member: mother, father, grandparent, uncle or aunt.

Throughout our lives we have all known teachers, coaches, figures in professional or business life, who led us to be more than we were before knowing them. We would say these people were critical figures in our lives. Usually such people cared about us as individuals, knew us, and managed to impart that they believed we could be part of a better world, a world from which they might be gone, however modest that world might be. A successful political leader, in doing any good that he or she does, imparts that same sense to those who help him or her onto the national stage. After that, politics, like golf, is better at revealing character than building it.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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