From "Leadership - The Philosopher's Stone of Management"
Murray Steele & Anne Brown
Cranfield Press 1990 IBSN 1 871315 05 0
Rt Rev Mgr F J McGuiness


Leadership is having the vision to make others see

by Alan Johnston


I would like to describe in this paper, the most impressive leader I have personally encountered to date, my former Headmaster. Unfortunately it is an account with a tragic ending. From building an institution of great academic achievement out of a new 60’s technical school, he saw his dream crushed by the comprehensive system and his staff, through his help, leave to fill all the most senior appointments in the 6th form college system. This, combined with personal family tragedy led to his untimely death.

I with many others owe him a great debt.


He inherited a school from new in which resources, such as they were, had been focused on the technical machines (woodwork, metalwork). This being the result of a compromise between the church and state in financing the school in the first place. The school was situated in the largest housing estate in Manchester where the social problems were second only to Hulme/Moss Side. He insisted on selecting a minimum of 55% from this area despite his decision to convert the school to a grammar school.

Of my year intake, 72% found places at University or Polytechnic, 10% found Oxbridge places and 2 scholarships were awarded and we won the Top of the Form, BBC TV series that year. These results were achieved during ‘A’ level year and without any assisted places.

I have mentioned before that, as the school disbanded, his staff were much sought after. He achieved an incredibly low staff turnover. Indeed, in my discussions with ex-staff since leaving, they all remark on the quality of staff he built up under one roof, they have never seen the same quality before or since.


One of his favourite topics at morning assembly, and I believe his role model, was Dr Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School and "Tom Brown’s Schooldays" fame. He cared for the pupils and his school and virtually dedicated his time completely to this care. (He was unmarried.) He knew the first name of every pupil in the school. Every year, every pupil wrote a letter to him. Having read your letter, he would make a point of "bumping into you" and discussing all the points you may have raised. He was highly visible.

As many at the pupils came from less privileged homes, and he insisted that full uniform be worn at all times, he would badger the well-off families to donate less than fully worn uniforms on a yearly basis. His office consisted of very little paperwork, but cupboards full of all sizes of items of uniform.

All school discipline, corporal punishment was administered by the headmaster on a 'docket system'; a standard form describing the nature at the offence to be signed by him. He had a sense of fun at these proceedings in that you were allowed time to defend your actions. A good defence could let you off the hook even if guilty. However, he clamped down on arrogance and deceit.

He actively supported all soccer and rugby matches, leaning very heavily towards soccer. He would often be seen in driving rain, after school hours and Saturdays to cheer us on. Again he was highly visible to pupils.

Perhaps his most impressive leadership characteristic was the way he effectively communicated his expectations of you. He would question you on our academic record, speak to teachers on your behalf but he would never allow you an objective less than what he thought you were capable of. He could make you feel very uncomfortable if you appeared less than convinced that you would make further education. It was not whether you would go to University but which one.

He was not a popular leader, but a hugely respected one. This was due to his persistent style. He had tremendous patience and could hammer away to get what he wanted, leaving you exhausted.

When my family moved to Manchester, my father investigated the schools by going directly to the Education Department. My father was a high ranking local government officer at the time and my school was selected because the Director of Education recommended it on the basis:

"That headmaster gives us more trouble than all the rest put together."


His undoubted success was due to his dedication and care of the school and its teachers and pupils. His expectations were high and he would not accept second best.

He understood and was in touch with every aspect of school life. He communicated his ideals to everyone, through a policy of high visibility. He was single-minded and ruthless in what he wanted for the school.

It is sad that this passion and dedication became an obsession, such that he could not cope with political change.


 Reproduced by kind permission of Alan Johnston and Murray Steele