Elements of Leadership

One of the best Headteachers I’ve ever encountered was Norman Roxburgh, Headteacher at Earlston High School for nearly 20 years.  Norman retained his enthusiasm, commitment and passion for learning and teaching throughout his career. I learned many things from Norman and so I was delighted to see his recent contribution to TESS.  There are many who write about leadership; research leadership, and talk about leadership – Norman lived it. He’s given me persmission to copy his article here.

Elements of Leadership

Before I retired from my post as Headteacher of Earlston High School at Easter of last year, I was asked to address Borders Headteachers on ” Leadership”. It was a subject to which I had given very little thought, but it was interesting for me to look back over my career and to recognise various aspects of leadership which I have seen. (Incidentally, I strongly agree with the idea that all teachers are leaders.)

After completing a degree in Engineering, I spent a year with VSO, teaching Physics. Despite having no training and no experience, I was invited to join the Management Team, because I was a “graduate from Scotland “.  I think this is an example of leadership by “status”. There are many examples where we are expected to follow someone simply because of their status.

After doing an MSc, I was not sure what to do next. There were plenty of opportunities for a graduate in microelectronics in the 70’s, but I wanted something different. A friend dared me to apply to a company, which provided electronic services on oilrigs, because it was the highest paid job in the “Directory of Graduate Opportunities”. During training in Paris a senior manager addressed the trainees. He explained the company owned us and that we would be told when to eat, when to sleep, and when we could make love; (only he was not so polite). This is leadership by “ownership” and I am sure this element of leadership is much used in the world today.

After completing teacher training I was very fortunate to be accepted on a British Council scheme to teach in Malaysia. This was a great experience in a wonderful country. The school was a prestigious government boarding school for gifted boys from local villages. The boys were very able and very hardworking. Despite having to study in a new language, most were very successful in ‘A’ Level exams. The headteacher could decide which teachers should be transferred out of the school. I recall one occasion when a teacher was rather reluctant to volunteer for an extra duty, but the suggestion that he might like to work in a very distant village resulted in great enthusiasm for the project. I think this is leadership by  “Power” and although headteachers in this country do not exercise this level of power, they can decide who teaches which class next year. That can be great power.

I was fortunate to be seconded to manage the TVEI extension project for Scottish Borders. The project was very well funded and, if schools met certain criteria, they received extra staffing and extra funding. At first some schools were reluctant to meet the criteria, but when asked if they wanted the extra funding all became willing. This element is leadership by “Money”, and it is very effective. Projects with no funding have a serious disadvantage.

 I think another important element in leading staff is by “Fear”. An example would be fear of inspectors. I am concerned when I hear of a headteacher telling teachers to do something because of what inspectors will say; rather than because it is the best thing for the pupils. This fear is very understandable. I think the HMI has to work hard to persuade teachers that their first priority is to give an excellent service to their pupils, and if they do, so they have nothing to fear.

Not surprisingly, I have left what I believe is the most important element of leadership till last. It is leadership by “Respect”. It is true that respect has to be earned and it is earned by doing things well. If a leader does her own job well; if she helps other staff when they need help; if she deals well with the most difficult problems; if she communicates well and if she acknowledges the work of others, then she will earn respect and people will listen to her when she wants their support. Likewise, the teacher who works hard and does things well for his pupils will usually earn the respect of his  pupils.

An example of outstanding leadership is when a teacher runs a sports squad, or puts on a musical show and gets sophisticated teenagers to give up their time to train in the mud or attend Sunday rehearsals. They are the natural leaders of young people. They are not common, but they are very valuable and much respected.

One might argue that the elements I have identified have overlap with each other and that things are not so simple. No doubt there are other elements and no doubt the good leader has to employ a variety of elements. However, I am certain that my conclusion is true and if it is obvious to you, then I am very pleased. You are probably well respected as a good leader.

Norman Roxburgh.

2 thoughts on “Elements of Leadership

  1. Brilliant article. It was interesting to see how based on Norman’s many years of experience, he distilled leadership down to four key elements: ‘Ownership’ ‘Power’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Respect’. These are all leadership styles I have experienced and can identify in others I have and do work with. It was particularly encouraging to read about the emphasis Norman gives to the human side of leadership.(E.g. respect) This accords very closely with what we covered in the International Leadership school in Edinburgh last summer. Thanks for sharing it here.

  2. I never had the pleasure of working with Norman, but I did have two children who had a superb secondary education in Earlston High School, much of which was down to his superb leadership and the great team of teachers he built up in the school. Norman had the self-belief (and the self-respect – something which too many headteachers give up the moment they become headteachers) by being able to tell HMI where to get off in their pronouncements on the work of Earlston High School. The terms ‘fear’ and ‘HMI’ only go together because so many in Scottish education allow it to happen.

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