Behind the fantasy adventures of Harry Potter lies an institution in which any principal, dean or director would, particularly perhaps after a very difficult and trying week, recognise as having similarities with their own. Like it or not, Hogwarts is closer to the reality of working in academia than any of us would like to admit.
Challenging staff management and relationships, demanding governors, old buildings that don’t easily adapt to today’s learning requirements, students not averse to rule bending and indeed the odd professor who seems to be a ghost!
Facing these difficulties is a man who should inspire any of us who lead in education today: Professor Albus Dumbledore. Enigmatic, eccentric and exceedingly clever he dominates his institution, yet at the same time, appears to manage with the lightest of touches. What drives his institution are his values, and what defines success for his students is the application of those values in all that they do.
Dumbledore stands out as a moralist, philosopher and pragmatist and as one who knows his own frailties.
As a moralist, facing the challenge of those who would see the triumph of the dark arts he addresses his school warning of the danger of those who spread enmity and discord: “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
This is a leadership principle that should be adopted by all those who face the dilemma of dealing with diversity in the workplace such as the management of British Airways that challenged the wearing of a cross in public view of their customers.
We may not agree with badging ourselves but should this stop others from doing the same? It is also a piece of advice that should be heeded by politicians in the UK intent on making the choice made by some muslim women to adopt the veil in the workplace a source of dissent. It may, according to some muslims, be a choice built on an ill-informed reading of their own sacred texts but it is their right to make that choice. After all, veil or no veil, it is their personal commitment to democracy and peace which will define where they stand relative to others.
As a philosopher faced with the job of helping Harry Potter live with the fact that he has the same skills as Voldemort, the villain of the stories, he asserts that: “It is a our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” A standard that should underpin all management education in the wake of Enron, Parmalat, Tyco and collapse of Arthur Andersen.
Choice is a key concept in management and one that those who favour business science over management capability ignore to their cost. Those of us who have worked as managers in organisations other than those associated with higher education will tell you that your choices define how you are rated by your peers. Choice brings together knowledge, skills and experience. Without experience you are at significant risk of failing to make the right choices, which is why I firmly believe that an MBA programme is no place to be for anyone with limited experience of management.
Dumbledore adds one further principle which should underpin much of what we teach: “The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed.” I suggest this is taken to heart by anyone still teaching strategy as a linear planning process.
As a pragmatist he recognises the impossibility of effective leadership when he challenges one of his staff members with: “If you are holding out for universal popularity I’m afraid you’ll be in this cabin for a very long time. Not a week has passed since I became headmaster of this school, when I haven’t had at least one owl complaining about the way I run it.” I may at this stage have to remind you that for the magical population letters come not by post but attached to an owl with an inbuilt satellite navigation system, however the point is still well made. Self-belief is a critical leadership characteristic and whilst an excess can lead you into acts of hubris from which spring nemesis, it is nonetheless a timely reminder that it is more important to do the right thing than that which retains your popularity.
These principles are in themselves worthy foundations for any leader in any sector but there is one final thing that for me makes him the ideal role model for the modern business school leader – his understanding of himself.
The balance to self-belief is self-awareness and effective leaders understand and value this as it provides a connection with those they lead through which they can anchor their actions in reality.
However, increasingly in many areas of public life right across the globe we see this balance going awry: for example, business leaders who confuse the wealth of the shareowner with their own and national leaders who invest in projects for international prestige whilst those they lead die of starvation. Academic leadership requires this balance: the quest for truth can get compromised in the search for funding, the search for academic respect or the search for external endorsements such as rankings. Our choices as leaders of institutions that develop future leaders in all sectors of the economy set an example close to home for those who study with us. As leaders in academic institutions we are clever people leading equally clever people. As we make our stands, set our directions and invest in our futures we should do so with these words given in response to the question “But you think you’re right?” ringing in our ears: “Naturally I do, but as I have already proven to you, I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being – forgive me – rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.