Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), suggests that heads – and those appointing them – should consider the myths they need to match.

When researchers attempted to discover how headteachers were being appointed in the 1980s, they found it was a process full of mystery – ‘a shot in the dark’.

Since the 1980s there has been a drive to make the process more rational. Lists of attributes and skills have been produced. However, it seems that sometimes the product of all this is someone who ticks all the boxes but who is like the Roman Emperor whom ‘everyone would have agreed was just the man to be emperor; if he had not actually ruled.’

What is missed in the person specification approach is an understanding that headteachers do not just undertake a set of rational tasks related logically to the operation of a school. Whether we like it or not, they also fulfil a function as figures of myth.

This is probably true of all managers. The famous, or infamous, CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, may have got his nickname ‘Neutron Jack’ for the logical reason that like a neutron bomb he preserved the facilities and got rid of the people; but his nickname also has the same mythical resonance as ‘Eric Bloodaxe.’

When I asked a head of year about what we needed in a new deputy, I found myself answering my own question. ‘What you want is a seven-foot gorilla with a Geordie accent – or Conan the Barbarian.’ She agreed. This told me more about how she perceived her situation and the state of the school, as well as the qualities we should look for in a new deputy, than I would have gleaned through asking her to tick any number of lists.

Matching the myth

Heads are mythical figures and part of other people’s fantasy systems, both while they are in the school and for long afterwards. Any woman head told by a parent, ‘No love, I want to see the headmaster’ has encountered the power of myth. The visitor has a role for ‘headmaster’ in his fantasy system and a woman does not fit it.

The full force of myth status hits heads when they realise that parents or staff are not addressing the reasonable, ordinary, limited person they know themselves to be. Instead, they are addressing some other figure with supernatural powers and a role that is much larger than the one they would award to themselves. They feature in people’s dreams and past pupils spin legends about them. In one way or another, heads play up to it – though not always as blatantly as the public school headmaster who announced from the pulpit one Sunday, ‘The Lord God hath said, and I am very much inclined to agree with him…’

Weindling and Earley found staff saying they had been looking for ‘Moses to lead them to the Promised Land.’ Elizabeth Richardson at Nailsea School concluded that part of the head’s problems was that staff were projecting on him their own feelings about the role of the father figure. In an account of Thomas Bennett School in the 1970s, the ghosts of Shakespeare’s history plays hover in the background as a ‘king’ struggles with the ‘barons’ who run the faculties in the school.

This mythologising of the head is a serious matter. Certainly some accusations of bullying arise because a member of staff is not responding to the head as s/he is, but to a figure of their imagination possessing all the attributes of a Babylonian thunder god.

It is uncomfortable stuff. So we talk about ‘not relying on hero heads’ or say ‘We are beyond the Victorian model of headship.’ In the sense in which it is meant, that a school cannot rely on one person alone to provide leadership, this is probably true. But in another sense, it is false. It is unavoidable that people will interpret their experience through myths at least as much as through logic; and it is sensible to try to get the myth on your side.

Sources of the myths

The myths that people call on come from many sources. Solomon the Wise rubs shoulders with Buffy the Vampire Slayer; King Arthur and Genghis Khan co-exist with Lenny Henry and Alan Sugar. There are also places for Boadicea and Margaret Thatcher.

What these real and mythical figures have in common is that they have some form of power that is useful in one particular situation.

The way it works is encapsulated by the Shane myth – originally just the hero of Jack Shaefer’s book or the film made from it; and yet also somehow living in outline in the subconscious of people who have never read the book or seen the film. It is the gunfighter, who has come to settle down among peaceful farmers, only to find that his skills are needed to combat a powerful rancher who will otherwise have the farmers gunned down by his hired killer, and who rides off when his work is done.

This story, or the related ‘Western’ myth of the ‘man who cleans up the town’ is surely somewhere in the back of the minds of people who headhunt someone to ‘turn round’ a school. If not, where does the assumption come from that the first job to be done by the incoming head is to take on and eliminate the ‘baddies’ – staff or children?

Fulfilling expectations

Once in post, all headteachers instinctively know that they cannot always act rationally. When events take on a mythical status, the head must act in a larger-than-life way in order to fulfil the expectations of the school community. If s/he does not, then the community will feel that the head is not big enough for the job. This may seem bizarre or laughable to rational people outside the school community and it is odd and uncomfortable being that mythical figure. Nevertheless, you have to live up to it if the job is to be done.

Unfortunately, it is not just the case that just any hero will do in any situation. A critic once said that if Hamlet and Macbeth had swapped places there would have been no tragedies. Macbeth would have killed Claudius within ten lines of being told of his father’s horrid murder while Hamlet would never have got round to working out whether to believe the witches’ prophesy or not, and would certainly never have acted on it.

Myths represent different kinds of leaders in situations that fit them. King Arthur did have Excalibur, but he spent most of his time sending knights out to find adventures. David spent all his life fighting to establish the kingdom of Israel. Solomon, though, inherited the kingdom and did not have to fight. He simply brought the added ingredient of super-wisdom to a settled kingdom. Headteachers may need to struggle or they may simply have to build on success.

The myths people choose illuminate their views and the headteacher has to fit the situation that the school community believes itself to be in. It is important to ‘deep listen’ to the metaphors that people use. For example, if the staff are looking for a gunfighter to clean up the town, it suggests strongly that the staff feel themselves unable to do anything for themselves. This is a far more difficult situation than where the staff feel they are ‘wandering in the wilderness’ waiting for Moses.

A headteacher who offers the first staff a ‘vision’ is likely to find that the result is further demoralisation. What is the point of a vision when you know you are not up to realising it? There the first thing to do is to get some quick wins to build confidence. Then you can start talking about visions. But the same vision offered to the second staff is exactly what they need. They know they can do it. They just want to know where to go and what is expected.

The mythical predecessor

One of the most difficult situations is when staff believe that the ‘old head’ lies sleeping somewhere, like King Arthur or Owain Glyn Dwr, and will return to save his people in their direst hour. The new head will be scrutinised to see whether s/he has any of the same qualities as the mythical predecessor. The only thing to be done is to embrace the myth and attempt to operate either as ‘the chosen successor’ or one of the Sons [or daughters] of the Musketeers.

A feature of many myths is that the hero does everything alone. This raises some interesting questions for federations. Which myth can a federation head tap into? The ones that come most readily to mind are the ‘absentee landlord’ who enjoys himself among the pleasures of London while his distant Irish estates go to rack and ruin; or intergalactic emperors who rule through savage repression. Not exactly helpful!

Building a positive myth of federal headship may turn out to be as urgent as resolving the administration flow chart.

For governors, the appointment of a head is the most difficult job they will do. It is not the technical aspects of headship that are the problem. The people they hire to help them know the issues in education and the qualifications for headship. What is unnerving is having to decide where the school is and what sort of head will fit. Asking ‘What figure of myth or history or literature does this school need now?’ could reveal the needs of the school faster than any alternative.

‘Required September, Attila the Hun…’?

Weindling, D and Earley,P (1987) Secondary Headship: the first years, Windsor: NFER-Nelson.