I read with interest last week’s feature in TESS called “It’s lonely at the top” by Adi Bloom. While it is an interesting read on a worthwhile topic, it doesn’t tackle some of the thorny questions we could be asking about leadership and organisations, and I’d like to take a moment to engage with some of its ideas and language.
Many other, far better, observers than I am have commented on hierarchies in education and how counter-productive they can be because they tend to hinder flexible thinking and acting ‘beyond’ the perceived (immovable) structure; for some of us they are also counter-intuitive, in the sense that rigid, vertical hierarchies fly in the face of what some of us believe should be the norm in professional structures, relationships and interactions: fluid, integrated, horizontal, inclusive and flexible. I despair – quietly – at the very phrase “at the top” because it presupposes a significant degree of ‘normality’ about the way we are expected to view the head of an organisation – that is, one single person surrounded by vast emptiness. Why are we expected to picture our leaders in these isolated, unnatural positions? Moreover, why are they ‘put’ there? Why are heads said to have “no peers” in a school? Are we not all each other’s peers? Are we not all adult professionals aiming for the same outcomes, namely, to improve young people’s life chances through education? Why would a head have nobody to “turn to”? Have we not reached a point yet in 21st century western education where we can start to think about other structures of organisations? Allow me to share with you an illustration from a rock concert.
The other night I had the pleasure of watching the DVD of a recent gig by the now stratospherically-popular rock band Muse, called Live in Rome. You know the scene: huge stage, light shows, special effects, explosions, puppetry, guest actors, lots and lots of bells and whistles. It looked and sounded fabulous. What struck me most, though, was the stage: instead of it merely comprising an elevated platform at the front of the stadium where Muse do their business for their fans, it contained an enormous second stage protruding from the centre of the main stage and running into the audience.
Like a very, very large catwalk, it allowed the band members to spend a lot of time among the crowd, as part of the crowd; not somewhere in the distance, at the front, but right in the midst of the people whose musical needs they were serving. It struck me as an arrangement and design particularly conducive to partnership, interaction, support and flexibility. And it was: one minute the lead singer was all over this catwalk, either alone or with his guitar or his piano; the next, the bass player chose this area for part of an extensive solo performance. In creating that performance space and using it all, interchangeably and flexibly, they were demonstrating their need to be close to their peers (the audience) a lot of the time; to play with them and for them, not at them; by taking turns at this they were showing the very opposite of isolation and loneliness, and their performance was enhanced considerably; by inviting their fans to sing along with them, they…….well, you get the point. Stop me before I labour the leadership analogy to death.
Could we adopt some of this narrative, some of this design and some of this behaviour and get to a practice in which leadership is the ultimate act of togetherness instead of it being an isolating, lonely phenomenon – notwithstanding an acceptance that different players in organisations have different jobs to do? I am sympathetic to the leaders featured in the TESS article, who are brave and generous in sharing some very difficult issues – many of which seem to be down to others’ erroneous perceptions of their remits and areas of responsibility. But do the language and the assumptions made in the leaders’ own anecdotes indicate that we are a far cry from letting go of rigid, vertical hierarchies? Could we, maybe, start by changing the language that we use in this kind of discourse and try to avoid phrases like “the top”, “senior”, “power”, “competition” and “authority” and, instead, through changing some of that language, develop a culture of ‘playing together’, taking turns and exchanging with – and among – our professional peers, so that no leader need feel isolated and lonely?