Lessons in leadership

2 02 2014


When I first started secondary school teaching I was given advice on how to manage my classes. I was told that I mustn’t be too soft or the students would take advantage. Ideally, I wanted them a little afraid of me, and that way, I was assured, I would always get what I wanted, which was complete control of my groups.

The advice was well-meaning and intended to be supportive. Soon after receiving it, I decided that I would ignore it. The way I looked at it the last thing I wanted was to walk into my work place every morning and feel the students retreat from me in fear.

I had several reasons for not wanting to use fear in establishing my authority as a class room leader. The first is that I’m not an especially frightening person. I’m not very tall; I have a small frame and I don’t have a loud voice.  I have an open and enquiring approach to life and my style of engaging with people is part of my approach. Before I entered teaching I worked as a journalist and author and had developed a communication style that was collaborative and compassionate. I knew that actively listening to people and being prepared to work with them to find creative solutions to obstacles and problems had proved invaluable in interviews and in the news rooms where I worked to fierce deadlines.

You cannot survive as a national newspaper journalist if you are soft. My previous working life had demonstrated that I was not a pushover, so it was a bit of a shock to discover that a teacher who doesn’t use fear is a teacher who doesn’t get respected. In the early days of teaching, I often felt compromised. When democratic rule failed and I had to resort to using some tough tactics, it felt wrong. I believed that there was a better way to lead than merely acting scary and so I began to study leadership as an art rather than as a tool.

The Italian thinker Machiavelli (1469-1527) would have derided my early attempts to bring my students on side without resorting to brutality. Machiavelli believed that that it was better to be feared than to be loved. As far as Machiavelli was concerned Cesare Borgia, who appointed a tough commander for a particularly unruly part of Italy, allowed him to rule with an iron fist and then had him dismembered and put on display for all to see in the town square, was exactly the role model Machiavelli was looking for. His view was that given half a chance people would lie, cheat and act out of greed and self-interest; it was unfortunate, but people were just made that way and couldn’t be trusted. Incredible as it seems to me, this line of thinking is still prevalent in many institutions today.

As Machiavelli’s examples testify, undoubtedly fear as a form of control works. It makes people listen and it makes people behave. A whole generation of people schooled under corporal punishment understand the dynamic of fear and obedience. With this philosophy the ends justify the means.

The consequence of Machiavellian thinking, however, is that obedience shuts people down. Entire nations were shut down and suppressed under fascist and communist rule. If rule by fear was truly as successful as Machiavelli believed it could be then those nations would have remained under control to this day. Machiavelli failed to see that rule by fear only works temporarily. After a while people get used to brutality and even become bored with it. Brian Keenan’s illuminating study of the mind and personalities of hostage and captor in An Evil Cradling writes of daily beatings and torture becoming ‘insignificant, a mere passing inconvenience.’ The real hurts are ‘psychic’ although if the trauma is too deep and too prolonged then there is the refuge of insanity, against which Keenan fought.

It seems to me that Machiavelli did not believe in courage. He did not understand that people could be inspired either by their own determination or by courageous leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Perhaps the only role models available to him were demented and murderous ones: Macbeth as opposed to Henry V. And we know what happened to Macbeth, whose act of diabolical treachery against mild King Duncan turned against him and plunged him into the deepest form of paranoid fear. If you rule with fear, then fear to some extent will also rule you.

Machiavelli was forced into exile by the Medici family who believed that he was part of a plot to overthrow them, and so we must view his ideas on leadership with an awareness of his own desperation to return to public life. More enlightened philosophers such as Kant recognised that it is not necessary to act like a beast in order to be respected. Human beings could thrive if they were treated as an end in themselves. With Kant we have the beginnings of humane philosophy.

Nevertheless Machiavelli’s ideas are still influential and The Prince is still read by many politicians. The stream of meanness that runs through the popular entrepreneurial show Dragon’s Den has elements of Machiavellian thinking. On television and through social media cruelty is as popular as it ever was for creating an entertaining spectacle.

The enjoyment of cruelty is perhaps part of the self-interest and greed that Machiavelli identified as basic human nature. It is challenging to do some hard thinking about what we truly admire over and above what we find frivolously entertaining. We perhaps understand cruelty too well.

What we so often fail to stand up for is that leaders who treat their troops, their workers, their students, their followers as if they matter will always win over leaders who threaten and bully and use shame to diminish. Fear so easily ignites rebellion as shown by countless testimonies from the underground resistance movements of the Second World War.  

I also recognise this truth from teaching. Rebellion is a healthy way of testing whether fear is real. It lets the leader know that she is on the wrong track and needs to either change her leadership style or listen a bit more attentively.

Rebellion also creates an opportunity for some mischief and this, too, can be valuable. Reindeer travel in large herds across wintry landscapes. The herds are led by the elders who know all the snow-covered tracks and have the wisdom of experience to navigate the way through. When it is time to rest, the elders can bring the entire herd to a halt to lie down in the snow. Sometimes, though, the younger reindeer want to carry on and they can get a bit playful and move to the front. In his study of leadership The New Leaders the Daniel Goleman describes such a scene in which the elders patiently get up and move the subordinates back in line. After a couple more tries, the elders give up and let the youngsters ‘take the lead.’ This is a fine example of a discerning leader who knows how to temper discipline with tolerance. Machiavelli could have learned a lot from watching reindeer.

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