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Ethics is central to good leadership, says Cambridgeshire headteacher

The Cam Academy Trust CEO Stephen Munday
The Cam Academy Trust CEO Stephen Munday

We can all recite some horror stories of bad management – no matter what career path you have chosen. But what makes a good leader? STEPHEN MUNDAY of The Cam Academy Trust has a few ideas.

We all know, and we are all certainly told, that leadership of organisations matters. Football clubs clearly seem to have a remarkable belief in this. If things briefly go wrong for a football club, then the perceived wisdom is seen to be immediately to remove the leader (manager) and replace that person with someone else. Everything will then rapidly go well instead of going badly. Well, that seems to be the theory.

‘Football manager’ syndrome seems to be moving into many areas of life, including at least somewhat, it seems, the educational world. ‘We are only as good as our last set of results’ are words that may have come from the lips of more than just one school leader.

Regardless of what we think about these developments (and we might well have views about the importance of developing structures, teams and cultures that do not necessarily get created within 24 hours of a new person joining an organisation), it is certainly a really important question to ask as to what makes good leadership in any area or any organisation. So, reflecting on what makes good leadership in education and schools is well worth doing.

There will be plenty of suggestions about what is needed in any effective leadership, including in the sphere of education. I want to suggest two things that seem utterly fundamental. The first is the ‘vision thing’. Without vision, there is not really leadership. Without some clear sense of what is the real purpose of what we are doing and what we are aiming for, then we have no sense of why and where we are going. We have no leadership.

Coupled with this must be an ability to work with people and take people with you. Some might say this is ‘management’, but, in truth, vision on its own without being able to engage others in the purpose and direction will achieve very little.

If these two things are fundamental requirements, then we might also ask what leaders in education need to be like. What attributes and characteristics do they need? There will be plenty of suggestions here I am sure: ‘knowledgeable’, ‘resilient’, ‘determined’ and many more.

At a school leaders’ conference earlier in the autumn, I listened to a very striking talk by the deputy commissioner of the London Fire Brigade on the topic of ‘leadership’.

He had taken operational responsibility for the efforts of the fire brigade at the Grenfell Tower disaster as well as at several of the recent London terrorist incidents. His previous career was in the Army. He spoke of his judgment of the most important attributes in a leader. We probably all thought he would be bound to suggest ‘tough’, ‘resilient’, ‘brave’ and other such things that we would all feel were crucial in such circumstances.

His suggestion was rather different. At the absolute top of leadership characteristics were ‘kindness’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘humility’. His view was that without these attributes, true leadership, especially in deeply challenging circumstances, could not properly be exercised. These are profound thoughts. If true for the London Fire Brigade, then for sure they must be true in educational leadership.

Growing numbers of school leadership organisations and associations have recently embarked on a further aspect of school leadership that some of us now feel absolutely must be emphasised and prioritised: ethical leadership. One might hope that if anywhere would display ethical leadership, it would be in the education sector.

Many of us might claim that a clear moral purpose lay at the heart of what we seek to do in education. And yet the education sector seems to have its fair share of concerning (sometimes terrible) leadership stories that we encounter in other walks of life. Have we missed something utterly fundamental here?

Sadly, we might well have done so. When school organisations are given powers to make decisions and decide upon the use of resources (as, at least in theory, much education policy suggests is the direction of travel), it matters more than ever that school leaders behave ethically and take that extremely seriously. A proper clarification of the ethical principles under which every one of us needs to operate would probably serve all of us, and certainly the education sector, well.

Ultimately, true leadership is ethical leadership.

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