by Tim Middleton
Right now, as if we need any reminding, schools are deep in exam season — senior pupils are in the midst of their external national examinations while the majority of the remainder are being examined internally on what they have learned throughout the year. Few folks enjoy exams; as one child put it, “they give me questions I don’t know. I give them answers they don’t know.” Another child adopted a specific approach to exams: “the night before exams is like the night before Christmas. You can’t sleep and yet hope for a miracle too!”
One wit has put it this way: “Exams are like girlfriends, firstly, there are too many questions. Secondly, they are difficult to understand. Thirdly, more explanation is always needed. Fourthly, the result is always ‘Fail’!”
Leaving that debate aside, let us consider the actual nature of examinations. Firstly, they do ask questions, rarely on general knowledge. Secondly, and obviously, the key to answering the question correctly is found in understanding the question correctly. Thirdly, the questions asked in examinations are not known in advance, which makes it harder to prepare for the examination. Fourthly, examinations put us under pressure as we are confronted by a specific time frame. Fifthly, examinations are very much a test of our ability as an individual to answer the question; we are on our own, unable to ask for help. Lastly, examinations do not allow us the opportunity or indeed the time to look up the answers in text books; we have to work out the answer ourselves.
We probably also do not need to be reminded that this is also the time of year, not just of speech days as previously discussed, but also of the appointment of pupil leaders in schools, whether they go by the name of prefects, monitors, leaders or stewards. We obviously will more especially sing our National Anthem, one line of which has particular significance in what we are considering here in this article. “Abakhokheli babe lobuqotho” in Ndebele; “Vatungamiri vave nenduramo” in Shona and “May leaders be exemplary” in English. Leaders, let us be reminded, are to be exemplary; in other words, they are to set an exam-ple; the exam-ple they set is their exam-ination. Leadership, therefore, is an examination of a person’s influence and of his integrity.
It is helpful therefore, to understand what this means with regard to leadership, and we can do that by noting the same points stated above about examinations.
Firstly, leadership is an examination because leadership asks questions of those in such positions. These questions are not based on general knowledge, but require leaders to come up with an appropriate and positive solution. Secondly, the key for leaders to respond correctly is to be found in them determining what the real issue is, to understand the question correctly — as Einstein put it, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Too many leaders rush in with a solution that is not relevant to the particular issue. Thirdly, leaders do not know in advance what questions will be asked of them; they have to respond to whatever comes up. Fourthly, leaders often have to give responses under the threat of a deadline, under pressure.
Fifthly, for a leader, the examination of his example is conducted on his own; he often can receive no help. Lastly, the answers to a leader’s examination of his example are not found in books; they have to be worked out in practice, in solitude, in reality.
A poster found in an exam hall once asked the question: “Time will pass. Will you?” The key question leaders are asked is this: Will they pass the leadership examination? Will they be exemplary? As someone has once remarked wryly, “The biggest mystery of Maths is this: thousands of years have passed, millions of theorems have been derived, millions of formulas have been made, but still, X is unknown!” It would seem to be the case as well that the biggest mystery of leadership is missed by too many leaders; the unknown X is, quite simply, the X-ample. Put another way, the X Factor for leadership is the leader setting the X-ample, being exemplary, passing the examination. That is all, in fact, that we are asking of our leaders: “May leaders be exemplary”. That is not too much to ask, is it? Four simple words — may leaders be exemplary. The leadership exam starts now.
Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.