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Death of the superhead

Eric McNulty’s fascinating review of new research into the link between charismatic CEO’s and company performance has interesting resonance in education systems.

As Eric argues, in the business world the link between charisma and performance had already been firmly challenged by the 2002 book, Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs. Whilst there was a perception in the markets that certain ‘star’ leaders were always good for company performance, the data did not support that impression.

And yet in education, as in business, we are still fascinated with the ‘hero head’ and find it hard to shake the notion that an inspirational leader is likely to be good news for school improvement. A new business study helps shine some more light on that. The Leadership Quarterly paper sampled 150 German companies to assess the link between CEO charisma and company profits. Although there was no direct link found (supporting those who argue for the death of the Superhead), there was an interesting link to a couple of intermediary variables: Transformational Leadership and Organisational Identity Strength.

What’s interesting about these is that they relate to the ability of a leader to develop a vision which is strongly influenced by their followers’ needs, creating a climate of collective aspirations. A possible conclusion from this is that, whilst in business a charismatic CEO alone does not seem to drive performance, he or she can can create the conditions for company success, and can distribute leadership to the wider senior team, and, ideally, the whole company.

In the education world, the ability to build distributive leaders has long been recognised as an essential skills for Executive Principals. The overall leader is the catalyst, but the result is a shared environment of clear values and performance which extends far beyond the individual.

Given the weight which will increasingly be placed on not only individual school Principals, but also the CEOs of Academy chains, it is vital that the education world stays close to such research. It may be that we urgently need more leaders who exhibit, in the terms of this study, ‘Transformational Leadership’ and create ‘Organisational Identify Strength’. Not only to lead improvements here and now, but because these models also have the best chance of building the climate for growing future school leadership teams, so that educational advances do not stop when the particular school leader moves on.

It’s good to know that the latest corporate research seems to support the direction of travel of the education sector’s approach to leadership development, but all the more reason to speed up the journey!

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