BUS-ted: The Great Leadership Myth

Posted on December 16, 2012

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Hands up if you’ve ever heard of this one from the Leadership Guru, Jim Collins:

In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.

If you’re sitting there with your hand up there’s a fair to middling chance that you are a member of a school’s senior leadership team. There’s also a pretty good chance that you’ve done some form of NCSL qualification, most likely the NPQH. And there’s a similarly high chance that you have heard of the flywheel metaphor from Collins too (there are a lot of metaphors in the book).

What is less likely, I would guess of you arm-raisers, is that you have actually read the book in question, “Good to Great”. I’d like to be the first to confess that I haven’t read it either and so this post is all about its usage rather than its genesis. I tend not to read these guru-scribed tomes, for which I might be rightly praised or rightly criticised. The only leadership thinkers I have ever read devoutly have been David Hargreaves for his attempts to understand the education system in its entirety and Alma Harris for her work on distributive leadership.

I have a problem with the quote above (and the bus metaphor more generally) for a number of reasons. The first is purely ideological: this book, as the Edugurus see it, is about applying the principles of leadership of business to the education sector and to individual schools. I have massive issues with this, although I do recognise the need for schools to balance the books and be financially astute in their dealings with the world. But we are all about human and social and cultural capital first and foremost. There is no profit to be made in schools of the kind that would motivate the great leaders. I crossed swords with a right wing thinktank leader at the London Festival of Education who wanted the profit motive to be introduced to education. Although she talked exclusively about small-scale social enterprise models I asked her how the corporate genies of Tesco and Serco (amongst others) could be kept in their bottle once profit – and through this, European laws on competition – were unleashed on the education sector. She affirmed me as an ideologue but never answered my question.

Indeed, the quote above from Jim Collins leads into a section praising the leadership of a CEO of the American mortgage lending firm, Fannie Mae, called David Maxwell in the 1980s. He may well have been a good egg all round (certainly I can find no criticisms of him anywhere in a short google hunt) but what is abundantly clear is that his successive successors ran the company into the subprime mortgage ground, and with it the global economy for which we are all paying now. If this is the bus we are supposed to be turning our schools into then I want no part of it, and I hope (perhaps against hope) that my last breath has left my body before for-profit schools come into being in the UK.

The second problem I have with the Collins quote is his belief that leadership is about “first the people then the direction”. In fact it is here the the metaphor runs into trouble as a coherent explanation. If the leader is the driver then the other people on the bus must be the school staff and then (maybe) the students. They must be the passengers, which makes them extremely passive participants? But say that we accept this view of our people as passengers, then we have to understand why passengers get on a bus and to my mind that has only one answer: to get to the destination they want to go to. If that is the case then surely direction must come before people!?!? I know that there’s always an element of the Magical Mystery Tour about school leadership (in equally enthralling and frustrating measures) but we can’t pressgang our colleagues and our pupils into coming aboard or, for that matter, staying aboard. Instead we have to offer a convincing, coherent and conviction-laced indication of where we are all going and why we are going there. It’s surely that sense of a terminus and a route (however sketchily drawn) that are critical factors for all collective human endeavours.

My third issue with the Collins quote, and it is the most oft-repeated mantra in current school leadership is the notion of getting “the wrong people off the bus”. It’s hard to know where to start with this one. First of all there’s the concept of “wrong people” that has very troubling notions underpinning it. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that all teachers and students are perfect and understand that there is the need to permanently exclude students and take capability procedures against bad teachers, but “wrong people”? It seems to convey that leadership is about sifting people into arbitrarily-drawn categories of rightness and wrongness that will surely lead to the creation of echo-chambers of self-reinforcing cheerleaders whilst at the same time effectively steamrollering all dissent. I have yet to see a highly effective leader who can’t hold their own in an argument with the so-called wrong people or who can’t defend a position that others don’t agree with. In fact, the best of them sometimes even modify or change their views and sense of direction in light of the contributions from these “wrong people”. After all, if the bus driver is heading down a one-way street in the wrong direction they would do well to listen and act upon the advice of those they disagree with.

I also abhor the notion of “getting” those “wrong people” off the bus, which is a weasel form of words that is shorthand for dismissal, be it justified, constructive or unfair. It’s the highly active verb I can’t bear, the sense of a deliberate strategy to force people out of an institution because their face doesn’t quite fit or their views are seen as being heretic. Again it doesn’t sit well with the whole bus metaphor either, unless anyone else has seen bus drivers regularly stopping in order to eject the wrong people. My real frustration with the phrase is that I am fairly confident that those who use it most are usually those who wouldn’t act upon it if faced with a genuinely challenging member of staff or student. Instead it is trotted out to provide the mood music of hopelessly heroic leadership, an anthem to martial management in word but not deed. It also evokes the throwaway culture that we live by these days and applies it to people rather than the food, clothing and domestic appliances that normally litter the landfills. I’d sooner believe that a good leader can take almost every child and adult in a school with him or her, in much the same way that a good bus driver gets all his or her passengers to their destination safely. For me the only thing getting off the bus is “off the bus”.

The final problem I have with the Collins quote (by god, I sometimes think I could pick a fight in an empty room!) is the notion that school leaders have to “stick with that discipline…no matter how dire the circumstances”. I’ve blogged about ‘Mosquito Moments’ before – the view that sometimes when leadership teams have dug a big hole for themselves then there comes a time when they need to put down their shovels – but the Collins quote seems to reinforce the fatuity of unthinking ‘groupthink’. For me great leadership needs to be sinuous and adaptive as well as focused and thought-through. After all, who wants a bus driver who ignores diversion warnings and missing bridges (think Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’ but without the spectacularly silly and anti-gravitational special effects) because they are not prepared to take into account the dire circumstances and out their foot down hard on the brakes?

So there you have it: my multiple issues with that one oft-repeated quote from the Collins book. I am sure adherents of ‘Good to Great’ can put me right on one or two of my comments here, but fundamentally I guess what I’m trying to say is that the metaphor of the bus doesn’t stack up. I’ve seen plenty of other more convincing metaphors, not least the notion of the conductor of an orchestra, but the fact that all metaphors run out of steam eventually. Or perhaps more worryingly all metaphors will eventually lead to a blind alley if we follow them too closely. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I value the power of metaphor, but school leadership is too multi-faceted, too ever-changing and too bloody important to be reducible to a pat abstraction. So if you’re leading a school like it’s a bus from the comfort of the drivers’ seat, slow down, pull over, stop, get out, stand back, close your eyes, look again. See, it’s not a bus at all is it?

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