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To be a Leader: lessons from Richard Branson and Jesus Christ

Every human community has a leader, starting with the smallest of human communities, the family. And the quality of life of those within a community depends to a significant extent on the quality of leadership exercised within it. At a national level, this is why leadership change is hailed each election time as a time of new opportunities, or new frustrations, depending on one’s point of view. One of Britain’s recent leaders was prepared to go to war, in Iraq, to achieve ‘régime change’ for that country, which effectively amounted to the removal of a strong (and admittedly rather unpredictable) leader to be replaced by a weaker (and much more controllable) one.

Even in our scientific age the mysterious and risky business of leadership is what determines, on all sorts of levels, the content and quality of our lives at home, at work, at church, in the world at large, in fact; but perhaps especially in those unique, self-contained worlds to which we consign our children for somewhere between eleven and sixteen years of their lives: schools.

In this essay, I will begin by briefly introducing some of the problems leaders in schools face and the expectations that we have of them. Since school leaders should be ready to learn lessons in leadership from outside the school gate, I shall discuss some of the techniques and characteristics of two famous leaders who have impressed me in the light of some well-known leadership theories.

Finally, reflecting on my experience and challenges I will propose a synthetic view of what might be considered the essentials of good leadership for a head teacher in a school.

Heads are busy people. They are - depending on the school - responsible for marketing, finance, training of new teachers, strategic planning, curriculum changes, quality control, discipline of pupils (and staff!) and, somewhere low down the list, teaching. In some schools the Head Teacher does not even teach at all.

In years gone by a Head Master might have been able to content himself with simply teaching a full timetable in an exemplary manner and counting on his colleagues to do the same. Matters of discipline might be brought to him if prefects and other teachers could not cope with them, but in the days before the explosion of ‘admin’ the Head was what his title implied: the Head Master, and yet a Master just like his colleagues. He certainly would have embodied stability and authority but he probably did not spend a great deal of time finding the right strategy for leading his school, although an obvious exception might have been Heads who were taking over schools in need of reform.

Since then, people have changed, schools have changed and their business has also changed. A different type of leader seems to be required, one who is prepared to reflect on his leadership style and to learn from other successful leaders. Part of the reason for this is that the ordinary man in the street no longer has a hierarchical instinct, but an egalitarian one. Perhaps since the French Revolution, Joe Public has become increasingly uneasy with authority in all its forms, so a leader in any community of today needs to earn respect and cooperation, rather than simply taking it for granted.

Leadership advice, for want of a better term, seems to fall into four main (admittedly overlapping) areas: attitudes, strategies, qualities and behaviours.

Attitudes: these are the ways you really feel (about your job and about your colleagues) and that you cannot help showing to your people. If the attitudes are problematic, one can work on them, but they are hard work.

Strategies: these would be such things as setting up clear models for followers to imitate, the art of delegation, turning one’s followers somehow into stakeholders, remembering people’s birthdays or remembering to say something encouraging to each person each time you meet. They are all techniques that could be employed in a calculated manner by any kind of person in a leadership role.

Qualities: These are the core values that are part of the personal potential of the leader and which give rise to everything else. An example of this kind of classification would be Stephen M. R. Covey’s ‘Four Cores’ of Integrity, Intent, Capabilities and Results.[1] As with attitudes, qualities are reformable. We can all turn our vices into virtues, because both are closely tied into our habits of behaviour. We just need to force ourselves to do what we know we need to do. All we need is the willpower (and, perhaps, if you believe in it, some grace.)

Behaviours: Things one does and the way one does them, often out of habit. Not so much a question of strategy as a way of being. They are the sort of thing that people will generalize about when talking about their leader: Mr X always respects us, Mr X always listens, etc. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People[2] promoted this label, but really mixed up attitudes, qualities and behaviours, but it has been made more intelligible by the son of that author in his list of ‘Thirteen Behaviours’.[3]

Two successful leaders and their attitudes, strategies, qualities and behaviours

About 25 years ago, when I was 13, a man with a mane of untamed red hair and a fuzzy, ginger beard landed on our school field in what looked like a red car seat attached to a parachute. He was wearing a red bomber jacket and a motorcycle helmet, both emblazoned with the already famous logo of ‘Virgin.’

We schoolboys rushed to get his autograph and I still have mine a quarter of a century later. It is a little drawing of an air balloon with the initials RB inside it. As for the man himself, he came along to the school assembly, in front of 900 boys, a few minutes after so dramatically falling out of the sky on to our cricket square. The Head Master introduced him as Robin Bachelor, the right-hand man (and stunt double, we all thought) of the famous entrepreneur Richard Branson. He had been taking part in a balloon race in a new mode of transport called the G-seat; an invention I never heard of again, although I have noticed that its patron has hardly been out of the headlines ever since.

Richard Branson started his entrepreneurial career very young. One of his first business successes involved a student magazine and then a sales tax fraud involving the pretence of exporting records to the continent when in fact they were only driven around the docks at Dover and then brought back to London to be sold for cash. This escapade cost him a night in prison and his parents an expensive remortgage (for £60,000) to bail him out and save him from a criminal record.[4]

Branson has had his share of success and stress (though not, since that night in jail, abject failure). He seems to lead a charmed life as a genial, boyish 60-year-old millionaire who loves his work and family. He was close to Princess Diana, and got her (famously) to wear a Virgin T-shirt in public. Now he has somehow contrived – seemingly effortlessly – to set up his two children, Holly and Sam, together with a nephew and a young protégé, as the leaders in the social circle of the young royals.[5]

Yet how does a man who appears so often as naïve and rash achieve such success in business, and why do so many follow him? He claims that his aim is to turn Virgin “into the most respected brand in the world”.[6] Part of his strategy for doing this is to court publicity, (something I have often done myself): "Generally speaking, I think being a high-profile person has its advantages … Advertising costs enormous amounts of money these days. I just announced in India that I was setting up a domestic airline, and we ended up getting on the front pages of the newspaper. The costs of that in advertising terms would have been considerable." High visibility is a good thing, maintains Branson, "as long as you're not in the headlines for the wrong reasons."[7]

Branson believes that even if leaders are not exactly born leaders, their upbringing does mean a great deal. Because habits and attitudes are so important the formative years can make or break a leader: in this respect Branson had an especially good start, with parents who were extremely ambitious for him, but not in the least smothering: “At age six, his mother would shove him out of the car and tell him to try to find his own way home. At age 10, she put her son on a bike to ride 300 miles.”[8]

Apart from his mother’s early attempts at leadership training, what mark Branson out in business? He attracts incredible loyalty, because he genuinely seems to like people. He claims that his other main hallmarks are an ability to listen and offer feedback to suggestions from his employees and also being an expert at delegation: "I have to be good at helping people run the individual businesses, and I have to be willing to step back. The company must be set up so it can continue without me." In fact, when he starts or takes over a new business, he spends about three months getting immersed in the nitty-gritty, developing the concept, building up the culture, then he gives his senior managers a stake in the business and lets them get on and manage it as if it were their own.

Part of his delegation strategy has to do with the fact that there are some areas where Branson himself is incredibly weak. For example, he is dyslexic and rather poor at arithmetic. He jokes that he can never remember the difference between gross and net profit. Various leadership theorists[9] have suggested that showing your vulnerability in this way can be a good strategy, especially if within your management structures you have made allowance for it. Branson himself underlines the importance of employees’ seeing the boss’s human side. He advises leaders “not be embarrassed about the staff seeing the weaker side of you. They don’t lose respect for you because they see your human side. They actually gain more respect for you”.[10]

Branson has a certain gentleness about him too. He feels that employees should not live in a relationship of fear with their managers: "If a flower is watered, it flourishes. If not, it shrivels up and dies. It’s much more fun looking for the best in people. People don’t need to be told where they’ve slipped up or made a mess of something. They’ll sort it out themselves."[11] And when an employee is not doing well in one area of the company, he is given an opportunity to excel in a different Virgin Group job. Despite the enormous size of his empire (350 companies and counting), Branson still realizes the value of at least creating the impression of the personal touch. Apparently, “For the companies in which he serves as both chief executive and chairman, Branson writes his staff "chitty-chatty" letters to tell them everything that is going on and to encourage them to write him with any ideas or suggestions. He gives them his home address and phone number. He responds with a letter personally, even if he doesn't follow up and deal with the details. Sometimes people come to him with personal problems, while others have suggestions for improvements in their companies”[12] People feel close to Branson. His light touch (through delegation) coupled with his air of personal accessibility and affability make him a figure of unusual adulation in the business world, sometimes with (even for him) unnerving results: while visiting New Zealand, Branson was once approached by a male admirer who told him, "Richard, I love you. I wish you were gay - and that I were gay too!"[13]

But, more importantly, the whole Virgin philosophy is about selling people an idea as well as a job or a product. Branson believes in making working for his companies an enjoyable life choice: “I don’t see Virgin as a company but as a way of life and I fully enjoy it”[14] he says, and he evidently endeavours to communicate this vision to his employees and especially to the senior managers.

Based on Kurt Lewin’s 1939 study[15] identifying what he saw as the three main leadership styles (authoritarian, democratic/participative and laissez-faire), Branson is clearly a democratic/participative leader with extraordinary personal qualities, originality and courage.

Another leader who has inspired me, in a much deeper way, is Jesus Christ.[16] As a Christian I believe that he was (and remains) the incarnate son of God[17]. But another aspect of that belief is that he was a man like us in all things but sin[18]. Because of this, it is entirely appropriate to examine the leadership that gained him a group of dedicated apostles who were prepared not merely to live for him, but also to die for him. He also left an organization behind him which has had an unparalleled impact on the course of human history, and indeed on the whole intellectual, cultural and spiritual outlook of modern man.

Of Kurt Lewin’s three broad types, my first instinct was to identify Jesus as the ultimate authority figure and therefore an authoritarian, who was, quite literally, always right! As an admittedly rather unempirical exercise I took a personality test online[19] in persona Christi, as it were, to determine which leadership would best describe Christ. In doing so I tried my level best to think of situations described in the four Gospels and relate them to the generalities put forward in the survey questions. The result was that Christ was labeled as a participative leader. In the wake of that reflection I searched further in the Gospels and found a clear pattern in their account of Jesus’ ministry, which shows a clear bias in favour of the participative style.

This example of participative leadership is one that he not only practices himself, but also sets as normative for the Church in the future. Regarding prayer he says that ‘whenever two or three of you are gathered together in my name’ to pray, then those prayers will be answered[20]. For governance and teaching, he vests in Peter a special authority of loosing and binding[21], called by Catholics ‘the power of the keys’, but he seems to make a point of giving this power to Peter individually and also the same, or similar power to all the apostles collectively.[22] From an ecclesiastical perspective, the bishops share in the same authority given to Peter, the first Pope. Peter is a leader who will have to act in a participative way for his authority to make sense.

Part of good leadership must include looking ahead to the day when one cannot be around to make all the decisions oneself. A good leader does not delegate simply because other people can do things better than he can. He delegates as a way of empowering his people, giving them the chance to develop their own leadership qualities and contribute to the expansion and success of the enterprise. At the height of his public ministry, and during what can be seen as a period of leadership training for the apostles, Jesus sent them out to do the kind of thing he himself had been getting a name for:

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” [23]

When they have tried this for a few weeks they come back for more instructions and to witness the culmination of Christ’s public ministry, leading to his Passion and death. The apostles who return from these exciting missions in the outlying towns are real leaders now, capable of stewarding and managing in an impressive way the large crowds that now gather to hear Jesus, surrounded by his leadership team. [24]

This seems an appropriate moment to mention the role played by trust in the leader/follower relationship. Christ, and Branson both have the same attitude to taking this unique kind of risk. Jim Burke, former Chairman and CEO of Johnson and Johnson claimed: “I have found that by trusting people until they prove themselves unworthy of that trust, a lot more happens.”[25] This is precisely what Christ did with Judas. Judas was sent out on those mini-missions of preaching, healing and casting out demons and yet ultimately betrayed Christ’s trust. But Christ will go even further than Burke: he will forgive a betrayal if he is sure that there is a real willingness to make a new start. Hence Peter’s three betrayals of trust are sorted out when Christ asks him three times if he loves him. The ability to trust – and to delegate (not because one can’t do a job oneself, but because one wants to empower others and the organization) is a mark of the ability of a true leader to see the larger picture: “Even an overdose of trust that, at times, involves the risk of being deceived or disappointed is wiser, in the long run, than taking for granted that most people are incompetent or insincere.”[26] Many great business leaders have found that high-trust interaction, when a clear vision has been imparted, inspires creativity, creates new possibilities and energises a team. In the simple maxim of Lao Tzu, the great Chinese theorist on leadership: “No trust given, no trust received.”[27]

Clear instructions for the mission are essential, of course. There needs to be a model which followers, or in the case of a school, teachers, can imitate. The best person to model good practice is the leader himself, and this brings us on to one of the most challenging features of what has been called “Level 5 Leadership”[28], the kind that can make the difference between good companies and schools and great ones.

Here the real character of the leader comes into play. It is not just about a clever game of risk-taking on trust with your followers. You want to make them trust you too. You might have a default position of trusting them, as a kind of winning leadership strategy, but the kind of trust they give you as a leader will depend on a few important personal qualities that relate to, dare I suggest, a man’s soul. That is to say, they are aspects of our personality that are very interior and private, yet which manifest themselves often enough through our actions. They are the deepest things one cay say about our outlook and values. Covey (Junior)[29] identifies four core values : Integrity, Intent, Capabilities and Results. It is the first of these that is the most intimate, but the others are very personal too: What is my real vision? Have I got what it takes? Can I come up with the goods?

The key one, it seems to me, is the first, and here the ancient leadership theorists would agree.[30] A leader, to be great, needs to be a virtuous man. For Covey (Junior) the attributes needed for integrity are: congruence (“walking the talk”), humility and courage. The truth, as if we did not already feel it in our bones, is that the really great leaders are “self-effacing … even shy … a personal blend of humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”[31]

So on a personal level, Jesus is a perfect fit. He speaks with an assurance and solidity that come from integrity of life, a perfect coming together of what I say and what I do. (A tall order for any Head Master to follow, to be sure, but a worthy point of reference nonetheless.)

In terms of Jesus’ strategies, like Branson, he develops winning approaches and paradigms that can be repeated time and time again (‘a system’.) He provides real structure and continuity within the organization, through the apostolic succession. Through the Christian doctrine of the mystical body, enunciated by his follower St Paul, Christ also makes the members of his organization real stakeholders. This is pre-eminently true perhaps for the priests and bishops, but it holds for every Christian.

Christ too, is a man who recognizes the importance of the personal relationship with each follower. He is prepared to go the extra mile for his men … the good shepherd. I remember that in a staff meeting at the beginning of term a couple of years ago, I told the teachers in my school what I expected from them, and invited them to say what they expected from me. One of them said, much to my surprise, “to be loved”. It is a deep need, and one that Christ surely satisfied better than anyone. (His answer to our other key needs is strangely attractive even if it would not please the teachers’ unions.)[32]

As for vulnerability, well, Christ has no faults per se, but the vulnerability (literally ‘ability to be wounded’) shown in his Passion not only makes him more loveable, but is precisely a sign of his love: “greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends”.[33] Now that kind of love and that kind of vulnerability would command undying respect and devotion to any leader. There is also, despite his awesome divinity (or perhaps because of it) the man who makes a barbecue on the seashore[34], the man who is reputed to be a ‘glutton and a drunkard’[35] because he likes to have a few drinks with his friends. Like Branson, Christ is not afraid to show his humanity to those he leads. He even shows, so some scripture scholars tell us, a sense of humour.[36]

Also, he did sometimes reveal that, in his humanity, he was finding it difficult to bear the burdens he had been given by his Father. And yet he bore them. That kind of example of heroic strength, drawn from God, in moments of weakness, must have been incredibly compelling.

There are many other home-truths of leadership that must surely come down to us from Christ’s example, or from that of the few really great men who have resembled him: give your followers a clearly repeated and articulated message; don’t be afraid to ask 100% because that’s what people want to give; choose different people for your team, not just clones of yourself (the apostles really were a mixed bag); give clear productivity targets and modes of assessment (“by their fruits shall ye know them”.[37])

Christ was also capable of reasonable pragmatism: he was able to slip away from dangerous crowds[38]; his disciples, although preaching non-violence, at least took one sword between two on journeys, for minimum protection[39]. (And at least one sword was carried to the Last Supper). The Messiah also knew his own limits (yes, as a human being, he had limits), so that for example he was able to make time for himself to rest, and to get away from the crowds[40], even if they still managed to catch up with him.

Lewin’s democratic/participative label is particularly to be seen in Christ’s teaching style: he almost always gets his questioners to answer their own questions in order to give them ownership of the profound answers (“whose head is on the coin?”[41] or “what did Moses command?”[42]and so on.) Even for something as crucial as his own divine identity, he goes through various people’s views, asking in turn, “who do they say I am?”[43]until Peter gives the earth-shattering answer.

Finally, from a chronological perspective, the whole story of Christ’s public ministry on earth is framed by his participative leadership style: the ministry is launched at a wedding feast, where he allows himself to be persuaded (by his mother) to perform his first miracle. As he dies on the Cross he says “Woman, behold thy son … son, behold thy mother”, thus mystically uniting by yet another bond his followers with himself and with his mother.

From a corporate point of view, and indeed from any point of view, there is little denying that (so far) the Virgin Mary and her son have had a larger impact on the history and flourishing of the human family than Branson and his Virgin have had. And yet both men embody the kind of leadership traits that a Head Master, or any leader, would certainly want to emulate, even if his corporate ambitions were more modest than those of the Church or of the Virgin Group.

One message that both of our examples would seem to underline is that an organisation’s ethos is the key to its success, and that the organisation’s leader should both create, and be an example of, that ethos.

The Church and the Virgin Group, bizarrely enough, are both places where leadership is constantly being taught and learnt as part of the vision of the organization. Good schools produce good leaders, because they too are places of participative leadership (with house captains, prefects, team sports and all manner of similar structures and activities). A good leader in a school ought to be a leader in a school of leadership, because training the young in such qualities is part of our vocation as teachers, because leadership is the essence, the living teaching, the self-perpetuating tradition, the genius loci, of a good school.

As Newman writes of an ideal place of learning " [it] will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow."[44] And Newman's ideal education, a liberal education, was oriented to developing the qualities needed for leadership.

The vocation of a school leader, then, within the universe that is his school, is to create loyalty to something greater than himself, but which he somehow embodies. Like a ‘home-maker’ – a woman who creates a total environment by the mode of her being as well as by her actions (ie. attitudes, strategies, qualities and behaviours) – a leader in a school should be a creator of that genius of place, the ethos. He should embody it, preach it, and teach it as well as engineering it into existence by careful planning and daily hard work.

And in part because the good leader gives of himself in continually engendering the ethos of his school, the spirit and values of good leadership will be part and parcel of what his school is all about.

[1] Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 34 ff.
[2] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press; 1st edition (September 15, 1990). (The father of the author of The Speed of Trust.)
[3] Stephen M. R. Covey, op. cit., p. 136. ff.
[4] Mary Vinnedge, ‘Richard Branson: Virgin Entrepreneur’ in Success Magazine, June 2009.
[5] Nicole Lampert and Rebecca English, ‘Virgin on royalty: Richard Branson's children have forged an intriguing social alliance with the young Royals. But is Daddy pulling all the strings?’ in The Daily Mail, 6th February 2010.
[6] ‘The Importance of Being Richard Branson’, knowledge@wharton (University of Pennsylvania).
[7] ibid
[8] ibid
[9] For example, Carol Kinsey Gorman in "This Isn't the Company I Joined": How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down, Kcs Pub; 2 Revised ed. (February 27, 2004). She even lists vulnerability among six core values for leaders. (The full list: vision, integrity, trust, values, vulnerability, motivation.)
[10] knowledge@wharton, op. cit.
[11] ibid.
[12] ibid
[13] November 30th 2004, during a TV phone-in interview by satellite on WHYY TV channel, Philadelphia, quoted in knowledge@wharton, op. cit.
[14] knowledge@wharton, op. cit.
[15] Lewin, K., LIippit, R. and White, R.K. (1939). ‘Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates’ in Journal of Social Psychology, 10, pp. 271-301
[16] A personal comment: In the realms of metaphysics, sexual ethics and philanthropy (inter alia) I am personally more on the side of Christ than Branson, but still admire Branson’s business style.
[17] Colossians 1:15
[18] Hebrews, 4:15.
[20] Matt. 18: 19.
[21] Matt 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven …” etc.
[22] Matt 18.18.
[23] Matt. 10. 5-8.
[24] Feeding and generally looking after the large crowd of over four thousand described in Matthew 15 is an impressive logistical miracle as well as a culinary one.
[25] Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 316.
[26] Warren Bennis, author of On Becoming a Leader, quoted in Covey, op cit, p. 318.
[27] Quoted in Stephen M. R. Covey, op cit, p. 320.
[28] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, Random House Business, 2001.
[29] Stephen M. R. Covey, op. cit.
[30] Lao Tzu, Plato, et al.
[31] Collins, op. cit. p. 22.
[32] Abraham Maslow’s 5 needs (in Motivation and Personality, 1954) and Matthew 6:28, “Consider the lilies of the field …”
[33] John 15:13.
[34] John 21: 12.
[35] Luke 7:31-35
[36] eg. Donald Wayne Viney, “The Humor of Jesus of Nazareth” in Midwest Quarterly (Winter 1997)
[37] Matt. 7: 16.
[38] Luke 4:29-30
[39] Luke 22:36
[40] John 5: 13.
[41] Luke 20: 24.
[42] Matt. 19: 7.
[43] Mark 8:27-38; Matt 16: 16.
[44] John Henry Newman, The Idea of A University, Discourse 6. Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning.


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