Leadership: oracy or empathy?

Earlier this month, I attended the annual HMC conference. This group, of which AKS is a member, comprises the UK’s leading 250 or so independent schools, plus a number of British schools across the world. Inevitably, the political and economic issues impacting the independent sector – from the threat of outright abolition, or the imposition of VAT on school fees, as well as Brexit and broader volatility across the world – formed a major theme. Alongside that, the nature of leadership and how we prepare our young people to engage with the uncertainties facing us all were key areas of focus and discussion.

I have been struck, as perhaps we all are at this time, by the qualities of those currently holding leadership positions, the missions they proclaim and the means by which they achieve them. As a Round Square school, we hold that leadership is closely aligned with service, in the broadest sense of doing something for someone else: great orators, and those with the greatest charisma, are not necessarily great empathisers; nor does that skill generate responsibility or compassion. Leadership is all too often conflated with power, right with might. One may agree or disagree with Boris Johnson, or Jeremy Corbyn, or Greta Thunberg, but I would hope that one’s views are moderated by a consideration of the impact of their proposals rather than just the rhetorical flourishes behind them.

We live in times where much leadership seems to be predicated on division rather than unity. Disagreement is reasonable, when different perspectives are available and when much is at stake, but the ideal must be to serve the greatest good wherever possible. For that reason, we believe that a great education should focus on more than the technicalities of the core academic subjects, important though they are: understanding the human condition, and having a true global perspective, is vital as well, and we argue that is best delivered through a broad, rich wider curriculum and a suite of experiential learning, through sport, drama, music, art, leadership, adventure and service, looking at entrepreneurship and inquiry as well as academic facility. For this reason, we invest a lot of our energy in creating these learning experiences, and in enabling our students to support and serve those in less fortunate circumstances both locally and across the world. Recognising that where, and when, we find ourselves makes us all incredibly fortunate compared with most people that have ever lived will, I hope, ensure that our students are well-equipped to make responsible decisions as they take up leadership positions of their own.

I am sure that most educators across the world would agree with this stance, even as they debate the details. Seeking to set one part of the education sector against another, or to undermine those schools eager and able to use their resources to benefit as many people as possible, does look counterproductive when their missions are the same and there is much to be gained through collaboration and exploration. It is always insightful to ask cui bono, and if the answer is no-one, one has to question why it is happening at all. May all of our schools, maintained or independent, be given the space and capacity to help develop wise leaders in a time when this skill is in profound demand.

D A Harrow