Leadership and the wisdom of hindsight

27 June 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

Education Executive, 27.06.16 Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School and vice chair of HMC, shares the insightful quotes that guide him through his leadership role.

I love quotations. They have informed my thinking in the classroom and the boardroom, as well as life outside the school walls. It probably comes from over thirty years as an English teacher, but even when I finish teaching I’m sure I shall continue to collect them.

As I reflect on the triumphs – and the few inevitable tragedies – of leading great educational institutions, I thought I would share some of my favourite wise words.

“No-one on their death bed ever wished they had spent more time in the office.”

I have got a lovely office at Uppingham and shall be sad to leave it behind, but it could well be argued that I have spent far too many hours in there. It is the way things are for someone leading a big organisation, but getting out and about is always more fun and always more important and more educational.

Even my great predecessor Edward Thring had to remind himself of that in the mid-19th Century; in his diary he wrote “Solvitur Ambulando”, which as Latin scholars will know means “It is solved by walking”. And it is true; it’s amazing how often a seemingly impossible knotty problem can get untangled when you’re on walkabout. Something usually clicks into place in one’s head, or a seemingly random encounter can help you put two and two together and make sense.

“We judge ourselves not by where we stand in times of comfort and convenience, but by where we stand in times of conflict and controversy.” (Martin Luther King)

It has sometimes been the difficult things that have forged the greatest memories of leadership for me. It goes with the territory that as leader of a community, the head has to make some decisions which are not going to be to everyone’s liking.

On top of that, stuff happens; there are unexpected events, sometimes good, sometimes pretty bad, that you just can’t plan for but have to react to – and that too is a key part of leadership.

“You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”

As seafaring folk so wisely point out, flexibility without reaching breaking point is key when being buffeted about by events.

“Managers are people who do things right; leaders are people who do the right things.” (Warren Bennis)

Managing a heavy workload and behaving pretty responsibly are important, and yet not necessarily evidence of leadership. There is a difference, in other words, between good leadership and good management.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” (William Shakespeare, Henry 4 Part 2)

It is important, therefore, not to jump in to a significant leadership role. It can be a burden, as Shakespeare knew. Don’t take it on if you can’t cope with some pressure, a measure of complexity and a bit of loneliness from time to time.

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” (Roy Disney, entrepreneur and nephew of the more famous Walt)

As I look back on all those leadership challenges, critical events and difficult decisions, and the final, most difficult decision of all to leave headship behind, this is the small piece of huge wisdom that has made it a little easier.

Just like being a captain of a ship, leadership is all about setting your course (core values), reacting to conditions (stuff happens) and decision making, as Roy Disney said. I have found both in my life and work that the more significant the leadership role (being a parent, for example, or a husband, or a head), the more complex and challenging the decisions become.

Listening carefully, consulting well, persuading where necessary, and trying to take other people on a particular journey when many might prefer to go a different way; it’s absorbing and rewarding, but it is rarely straightforward.

Perhaps my favourite and most important quotation of all on the topic of leadership comes from the Bible, which in terms of core values is a reminder that humility is a vital quality in a leader – in anyone really but perhaps especially one who professes to follow Christian values.

“Among you,” said Jesus, “whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.”

That’s an upside down theory of leadership if ever I heard one, but in my book (even in my book of quotations) it is the best model there is to follow.

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