by Stephen Scott

October, 2018

Headmaster Dr Phillip Moulds and Mr Stephen Scott argue that a leader cannot lead others if they are not prepared to do the ongoing work required to develop their own leadership. 

Student leadership at school is often defined in terms of school captains and committee chairs. Similarly, education leadership is linked to titles such as heads, principals and deans. In companies or agencies, it is presidents, managing directors, senior Vice Presidents, executives and so-on. In any case, the emphasis in “leadership” is often placed on the individual. 

In an upcoming article for a leading education journal, Headmaster Dr Phillip Moulds and author Mr Stephen Scott argue that emphasis on the individual is largely misplaced; that it should not be solely about a select few, but rather about overall leadership behaviour and attributes throughout the organisation. The following draws on the full-length article which appears in the October issue of Independence, a publication of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia. 

Most of us recognise a concerning deficit of authentic leadership in our society today, made all the more obvious by behaviour and actions of leaders; whether it is a sporting coach starting a UFC style brawl on the sideline of a game, a CEO being accused of fraud or misconduct, or a politician going beyond his or her mandate somewhere in the world. 

Organisations, whatever form they take – including schools – frequently fail to appoint or develop effective leaders. Similarly, they can create or enable environments where great potential often withers. So what is it about the nature of leaders and leadership in our modern society today that rarely motivates people positively or enhances their wellbeing? 

According to Dr Moulds and Stephen Scott there is a way forward for organisations, especially schools, to develop leaders and build organisational leadership capacity, while at the same time creating and environment in which staff (and students) can and want to give more and experience a greater quality of life through improved motivation and wellbeing. 

Using the growth of a tree as an analogy, this is how Dr Moulds and Mr Scott explain organisational leadership: When we look at a tree we see the trunk, the branches and the foliage, but what we can’t see is the root system, which gives life to the tree. The most important root is the tap root, unseen and extending down from the centre of the tree, feeding the root system and the whole tree. The tap root also reserves some of the Earth’s nutrients for itself, “knowing” that to support the tree, it must nourish or invest in itself. 

When we look at an organisation, we see its functional, noticeable parts. These are branches and leaves.How effectively they work with each other determines the overall productivity and quality of the whole organisation (and its products). What may not be immediately obvious is the leadership of that organisation. We can certainly see the leaders, but we can’t always see their leadership, their character, their tap root. 

Leadership is what is felt, believed, lived through and valued by the people of the organisation. Leadership, the tap root, is what gives life to the organisation seen in the way all the various branches of the organisation interact with each other. The health of the leadership absolutely determines the health of the organisation. 

In their analogy, Dr Moulds and Mr Scott describe the root system of an organisation as its overall culture and climate. The tap root is its character, or aggregate of personal qualities, of the persons responsible for its culture. It is their character, not skill, that will determine their leadership actions. Like the tap root of a tree, they must invest in themselves to ensure they are their best selves, in order to realise a culture and climate that realises growth in its people. 

Like the growth of a tree, leadership is affected by a myriad of internal and external factors that are sometimes difficult to predict or direct; however, the pursuit of leadership development is fundamentally important to provide a culture and a climate that people individually and collectively deserve to work in. 

Leader development, therefore, may be likened to nourishing a single sapling in an otherwise empty paddock. It may grow to be a good, strong tree, but it is alone, exposed to the elements and at risk of coming down in a storm or withering on its own. In other words, it is focused on an individual’s capability, to noble endeavour, but one which comes with significant limitations. 

Leadership development, on the other hand, is like a growing a forest or building social capital, with all of its layers from the forest floor, through to the understory and canopy; even a few scattered trees can begin to emerge over the canopy. It is a rich environment, dependent on and supportive of one another and respectful of each individual plant and, therefore, each individual tap root. A healthy forest cannot grow otherwise. 

A leader, therefore, cannot lead others if they are not prepared to do the ongoing work required to develop their own leadership as well as the leadership of others. 

The point is, that when you nature the forest, you grow the whole organisation. At the same time you are able to develop those “special” leaders as well, not just at the expense of others.

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