'I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. And my summer in Italy has convinced me that I am truly in my prime.'
‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ Muriel Spark
I recently saw a fine theatrical adaptation of Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at the Donmar Warehouse in London (until 28 July).
It is 1932 and we are introduced to Jean Brodie, a charismatic and subversive teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school. She inspires her dedicated pupils with stories of Italian holidays and Giotto; with advice on love and appropriate window closure.
The free-spirited, independent-minded Brodie is constantly questioning the more formal, disciplined teaching methods of the head of school, Miss Mackay.
'I am cashmere to Miss Mackay's granite.'
As the play progresses, we come to appreciate that Brodie is deeply flawed. The fierce loyalty she demands from her pupils creates a clique. And she has more than a passing fascination with continental fascism.
Despite this, I was quite taken with Brodie’s teaching philosophy.
‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root ‘e’ from ‘ex’, ‘out’, and ‘duco’, ‘I lead’. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix ‘in’, meaning ’in’ and the stem ‘trudo’, ‘I thrust’.’
Perhaps Brodie could suggest some leadership lessons for the commercial sector.
When you are appointed Head of Planning, you may find that your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness. You were promoted because you’re sharp, smart and pretty good at strategy. And so your first instinct on being presented with a problem is to endeavour to solve it yourself. When, however, the problem comes to you in the shape of a young Planner with a few theories of his or her own, this instinct doesn’t help.
If the primary task of leadership is to maximize the output, value and wellbeing of the human capital available to you, then a key challenge is to create high performing self-sufficiency in your Planners. You won’t achieve this by telling them to write up your answers.
As Broadie would have put it, coaching is about ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in.’
In my brief and not entirely successful tenure of the Head of Planning role at BBH, I set myself the task of enhancing my Planners’ ideas and hypotheses, rather than imposing my own. I was a pluralist who believed there were many right answers to any question. And in time I grew rather to enjoy the intellectual challenge inherent in this approach.
On taking the reins, you may also be inclined to promote a strong sense of departmental identity and esprit de corps; to rally the team round a unifying vision and sense of purpose. This is a natural path to take. But, as Brodie warned, it can be counterproductive.
'Phrases like 'the team spirit' are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties.'
Be careful that coherence and consistency don’t translate into uniformity and homogeneity. A successful strategy department is characterized by diverse skills and personalities working in harmony. Make difference your friend.
The third lesson from the Brodie handbook is perhaps an obvious one.
Brodie set out from the start to instill confidence; to convince her pupils that she believed in them and that she was on their side. Brodie’s girls were ‘the crème de la crème’, and they were ‘in their prime’.
'One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.'
Confidence is a precious commodity in any organization. It prompts people to inspired leaps; motivates them to engage Clients with conviction; supports them through the hard times. A critical responsibility of leadership is to build and sustain self-confidence.
So, three lessons from the Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership:
- coach by ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in’
- create harmonious teams of individuals, not uniform teams of carbon-copies
- build self-confidence: the sense that your Planners are ‘the crème de la crème, in their prime’
Perhaps we should give the last word to Miss Jean Brodie who, for all her flaws, leaves an indelible impression.
'I am a teacher! I am a teacher, first, last, always!... It is true I am a strong influence on my girls. I am proud of it. I influence them to be aware of all the possibilities of life... of beauty, honour, courage.'
I was invited to write this piece by Ben Shaw, the new Head of Planning at BBH, London. It first appeared on BBH Labs, 2 July 2018.