FIRING LINE: Leadership wish
I was thinking recently that if The Alexandra School saga had happened in the United States, all of the major players would now be very rich. I am sure offers would be rolling in for reality TV shows, miniseries and books.
I can imagine some of the titles – What Not To Do At A Secondary School: The Alexandra Case Study, or perhaps The Principal And The Lady In Red: The Tale Of Two Egos.
I am sure that the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation has perhaps been receiving requests for news reports on the commission of inquiry to be repeated. With letters being unearthed, sources being revealed, tears flowing and drama over pitching marbles, those reports were perhaps the most engaging three minutes of prime time – outside of Days Of Our Lives, of course.
However, as in most things, when you peel away the outer layer, what is revealed can often prove to be more complex than first thought. This commission of inquiry has suggested to me that there are some fundamental contradictions in our society relating to what we value in our leaders and managers.
We encourage people to aspire to academic excellence and we often base our judgements about the effectiveness of our leaders on their qualifications or professional achievements. More importantly, we hire mostly based on qualifications – the more papers you have or letters behind your name, the more likely your chances of getting the job.
Yet, in the real world, being a good leader or manager is dependent on your ability to work with people – plain and simple. Having academic know-how is one thing, managing people is another. In this context, pitching marbles with students is fine, once when you get up off your knees you not only have the students’ respect, but also the respect of the staff. It is the staff that you have to work with to impact the students, not the other way around.
This applies in all situations of leadership and management. Playing to the crowd has its merits, but it’s what happens on the inside with those around you that will define how effective you are as a leader.
In relation to The Alexandra School, it amazed me that the principal could so easily get on the same level as students in a number of circumstances but fail to get his staff to want to work with him. If you cannot get your workers to follow you, then you fail as a leader. Leaders and followers go hand in hand – you cannot have one without the other.
Somehow we have enshrined a system, particularly in the Public Service, which prioritizes every other quality than the ability of the person to get the job done and, more importantly, his ability to work with others to get it done. Even with ample evidence that the person clearly cannot lead, the system says he cannot be moved; this befuddles me. If I have hired you to do a job which involves leadership and the evidence shows you have failed to lead, which involves getting people to follow you, then on what basis do you deserve to still be employed?
I do not necessarily blame the leaders; it is our own expectations that oft-times create the problem. We hire square pegs in the first place and then add further insult by putting them in round holes and assume that the skills they need to function will fall like manna from the sky.
We have politicians who have never even led sheep to a pasture but once they ascend the steps of Parliament, we bestow upon them the title of leader of a ministry, or the entire country, when often their only experience in leadership is what is imagined through their own aspirations.
What is needed is a different criteria and a different value system for judging effective leaders and managers, one that is based not just on academics, appearance or oratorical skills, but also on demonstrated effectiveness to work with and mobilize others around achieving an agreed goal.
If we build effective leaders from the ground up in our organizations, then perhaps we will begin to see more of this exemplified at the political level.
I can only wish.
• Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and deputy coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.