In our ‘Leader’ columns, those working in and for the education sector share the leadership lessons life has taught them. Today, previous permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Employment, Lord Michael Bichard, talks reflection, mistakes and hard work.
‘You are the most boring pupil I have ever encountered’, my art teacher told me. He may have been right at the time; it was years before I recovered my creativity and proved him wrong. It taught me how damaging ill-judged comments can be, especially from people we should respect.
I’ve learnt more about leadership from experience than books. To do that you have to go where the experience is rich and you have to be prepared to reflect on it. I have seen people who nurture their careers and avoid risky postings to protect their appraisal marks and I see people who too rarely reflect on what has happened to them. Neither realise their potential.
‘Authentic’ is the most important word for leaders (alongside integrity!) I learned early that if you try and be someone you aren’t, you won’t feel comfortable and people won’t believe in you. I try to be true to my roots.
People hear what you say but believe what you do. You have to live the values and you have to deliver on promises. I have worked, especially in government,with people who were clever with words and could craft impressive visions but they failed to carry people with them simply because they were unable to execute and deliver their good intentions.
It’s important to give young talent space to grow and, sometimes, make mistakes. Some leaders would have given up on me because I was always challenging and often abrasive. My first Chief Executive didn’t give up but coached me and gave me responsibility. I owe him a huge debt and try to do the same when I come across raw talent.
Only ever do the things you can defend because you think they are right. Never do things just because they will be well received whether by colleagues, senior managers or the media. You have to accept that people won’t always agree with you but you need them to respect you….and trust is very difficult to regain if you lose it.
Sadly there is no substitute for hard work. Initially it was my way of compensating for the things I didn’t have but then it became a habit. I remain suspicious of people who aren’t hungry to achieve.
Humour can be a powerful tool if it is used selectively. It can diffuse tension and inject energy into meetings but I know mine can be wounding too, so I need to take care.
Outcomes always trump process. Value added always trumps activity. The person who wrote ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’ should be shot!
If you’re a member of our service for school leaders, take a look at our popular article on leadership structures in outstanding schools.