Follow my leader
While I am on the subject of slogans ('democracy' in my last post), let me move on to 'leadership'. The husband has long hated this one, and I am beginning to join him. That's partly, I guess, because we have been hearing the word on every news and comment programme as a mantra against Corbyn (whatever it is, Corbyn is repeatedly said not to possess it). But it's not just upper echelon politics, we're constantly being told that we want head teachers, hospital managers, univeristy vice-chancellors, museum directors who are 'leaders'. And there are all kinds of courses available, I'm told, which are solely directed to teaching leadership (and no doubt making money from doing, or claiming to do, exactly that).
Now, obviously, I am all in favour of people in positions of responsibility having the skills to do the job. If heads, or anyone, have to make big financial decisions, then it's a very good idea to have proper training to do that. And there is nothing the matter with a bit of charisma here and there, though too much charisma can be too much of a good thing. My problems are in the implications of this idea of 'leadership' -- ones that don't make it to the news when we are discussing Corbyn, management styles, the success of UK schools, or whatever.
For a start, if some are 'leaders' what does that make the rest of us? 'Followers', presumably. So I find myself asking, what does it take to be a good follower? And when are there going to be courses in that? (Captains of industry.. why not send your workforce on a followership programme...?). But more seriously, what kind of institutional and decision making structure does this fixation on leadership imply?
I fear that it is a top-down 'management style', with the man at the top (usually the man) being the key player and determining the fortunes of the organisation. That is of course one way of doing it, but it has tended to squeeze out competing and perhaps more effectiove models -- like the collaborative one. I'm not sure that when I am looking for, say, a Prime Minister, I really want a 'leader'. I think I would prefer a sensible and acute chair of the cabinet committee, whose members together can provide the expertise and the talents needed to guide the country. And I care more about his or her capacity to get to grips -- collaboratively -- with the big issues than to make a big splash with sparkling television performances. Of course, I am looking for a good level of competence in communication, but I am not looking for someone whose main talent is being plausible and funny in TV debates.
It makes me think of how my own Faculty in Cambridge is run, with considerable success in its own sphere. We are guided by a partly elected, partly selected Faculty Board of about 20 academic staff (plus librarian, student reps...). The Chair of the Board is elected for two years. It is a job that most academics expect to do once in their career, but not usually more. It is a short enough period of office to ensure that noone's research is too much interrupted by huge administrative responsibilities and to ensure also that those who are less good at the job (noone hopeless is ever elected) can do very limited damage. But it is long enough to let a Chair initiate and see through one or two reforms and changes. Even more important, by the law of averages, the Board at any one time includes a significant number of people who have themselves had the experience of having done the big job -- in other words there is a depth of experience among the members of the committee.
None of this is much in tune with modern univeristy governance, which is as committed to 'leadership' as any institutions, and works with an image of longterm super-profs providing that, top down, to us poor foot-soldiers. And I am sure that we will eventually be forced to scrap our system and go over to what I sometimes call the 'baronial' structure (after the colloquial term "science barons'). But it is worth sticking up while we have it for an old-fashioned (and maybe eventually radically new again) collaborative form of governance.
Whether the structures of organisation with a medium sized faculty in Cambridge provide a model for other institutions is a moot point. But they may be a better model than you might at first think. To put it another way, good schools may depend on good teachers rather more than they depend on good leadership. And good national government may depend more of good MPs and good structures of collaboration more than on a presidential style Prime Minister.