Andy Falconer

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Developing Future Leaders

13 Jan 2016 | Leave a Comment |
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Developing Future Leaders – Attain Magazine

Effective leaders are made not born, and the skills and values pupils need for leadership must be imparted at an early age whilst at school.  This is an article which I wrote for the Spring edition of Attain Magazine, which can be read in their online magazine here: https://attain.digital/issue29/attain29_article4_1.html

Leaders are born not made. I disagree. Whilst I don’t think that leadership can be taught, in the way that chemistry or French is taught, I do believe leadership can be developed. Management is a science that can be taught, but leadership is an art that must be developed. Like so many things, the earlier we start the process, the better.

John is a risk-averse Chief Financial Officer, unwilling to make a decision without all the facts. His colleagues get aggravated because his indecision and focus on what won’t work puts the brakes on everything. John’s father bet the family business – and lost everything, when John was a child. The shock of going from affluence to poverty has never left him.

Linda, in operations, is conflict-averse; everyone knows she won’t address personnel problems or speak up in meetings. No-one knows what she’s really thinking. Linda’s coping skills developed early. Her father was an angry alcoholic. She learned early on to keep her opinions to herself and never attract unwanted negative attention.

And then there’s Mike, the judgmental and sarcastic Chief Executive. Don’t ever reveal a weakness in his presence. Mike’s family was large and competitive. A thick skin and a harsh comeback ensured his older siblings didn’t mess with him.

These examples from Shayne Hughes, Learning as Leadership’s CEO, exemplify the importance that our childhoods have on our future personalities and leadership styles. If we can provide positive experiences at school, and at home, that help our pupils to develop an understanding of both themselves and of leadership, then it can only be for the good.

If you flick through the pages of any newspaper, there seems to be a disproportionate number of people in high profile leadership roles who went to private schools. There must be something happening in our schools that helps to prepare youngsters to take on prominent leadership roles. It isn’t one single thing. In Simon Walker’s book ‘The undefended leader’, he states that “leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have”. To be a leader, you must be yourself. I believe it is the focus in private schools to develop the pupils in a holistic way, free from much of the state interference and bureaucracy of maintained schools, that gives such schools the edge in producing future leaders. We are not just preparing pupils to sit public exams, but to have the attitudes, aptitudes and skills that employers are looking for.

In prep schools it is the combination of being in an environment where a child is surrounded by others who are motivated and want to learn; the wide range of co-curricular activities that happen within the school day rather than outside of school (which allows teachers to help develop a child’s learning but not in isolation from what happens in the classroom); and the emphasis on failure being a completely acceptable way to learn, as so often provided through competitive team sport and House competitions which provide opportunities for young people to experience and develop leadership skills.

However, the risk in schools is that the confident child who displays the stereotypical charismatic, leading from the front type of personality gets selected for the leadership roles – head of house, sports team captain, head girl, chair of the school council. My concern isn’t that we aren’t helping develop future leaders in our schools, but that we’re only developing a particular style of leadership and that our focus is too narrow.

Brigham Young University management professor Bradley Agle studied the CEOs of 128 major companies and found that those considered charismatic by their top executives had bigger salaries but not better corporate performance than those who were much less charismatic. Harvard Business School professor Quinn Mills feels that we tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be.

Three books that have addressed this issue head on are ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain, ‘Building on your quiet strength’ by Jennifer Kahnweiler, and ‘Leading quietly’ by Joseph Badaracco. As a Head Master I have the privilege of seeing 350 different individual 8-13 year olds each and every day. I get to see their different approaches, how a child who is confident in one arena can be so lacking in confidence in another. As a parent of three children I also get to see this on a micro scale. What works for one child won’t necessarily work for another. The way one child approaches a challenge can be completely different from the others.

‘If your children are quiet, help them make peace with new situations and new people, but otherwise let themselves be themselves. Delight in the originality of their minds. Take pride in the strength of their consciences and the loyalty of their friendships. Don’t expect or want them to follow the gang. Encourage them to follow their own passions instead.’ This is great advice from Susan Cain to us as parents, as it can be all too easy to try and mould our children into the sort of personalities we feel they need to be, and thus the type of leader we feel they should be.

Teachers face the constant challenge of ensuring that all their pupils are learning and developing, not just the noisy ones who want attention. “If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students, but don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth-century art. They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow.” This reminder from Susan Cain is key to developing a whole generation of leaders, who so often can go unnoticed, and it starts in schools.

There are two key approaches that pupils in our schools need to understand and develop: firstly, that failing and getting things wrong is key to developing ourselves, provided that we learn from the experience; and secondly, that all leadership is situational and contextual – what works in one situation may not work in another, so be true to yourself. We want our young people to develop into authentic, courageous, servant leaders who can embody Joseph Badaracco’s three traits of quiet leadership: restraint, modesty and tenacity.

How schools and parents take responsibility for developing leadership is down to personal choice. In my school our Year 7/8 pupils are undertaking the Archbishop of York Youth Trust’s ‘Young Leaders Award’. Some schools use the Prep School Baccalaureate, which has a leadership strand, whilst other schools have developed their own ways of developing leadership qualities. What is key is that youngsters understand that they need to have a growth mindset approach to leadership. By this I mean that they embrace the idea that they can get better at it if they are prepared to put in the effort. They’re not born a natural leader so it must be developed, and this takes time and effort. Schools and parents must also help them to develop their leadership qualities within some sort of values framework or moral compass, that will help to guide their decisions as they move forward.

Whatever the approach to developing leaders, as a Head Master, my plea is that focus is given to developing the next generation of quiet leaders, as well as extrovert charismatic leaders. Effective leaders are made, not born.