Leadership - a consultative paper

The Rank Foundation has spent a considerable sum on the Rank Foundation Education Scheme (RFES) over the past 25 years. What were the investment criteria for such expenditure? Why did they choose me?

The answers to these questions may be found in a document written almost 25 years ago. Squadron Leader Larry Parsons, the original RFES Administrator, presented a paper on 24th July 1980 to the Rank Foundation Board entitled "Leadership, A Consultative Paper". The full, unedited, paper is included in Foundation of Faith, History of the Rank Foundation written by Mr R. F. H. Cowen, past Chairman of the Rank Foundation (copies of this excellent book can be requested from Gill Zammett).

An abridged version of this key paper is provided below. Some sentences are shown here in bold, although they are not shown as such in the original text.

The Rank Foundation Education Scheme
Leadership, A Consultative Paper

Basic Principles
The Adult Model
Assessment of Leadership Potential in Schools
Training for Leadership

The aim of this paper is to give a personal appreciation of the concept of leadership within the context of the RFES.

Basic Principles

Effective leaders can be found in both the good and bad sections of society. As leaders, some of the organising geniuses behind criminal groups are just as effective as some of those behind worthy causes and perfectly reputable companies, sometimes more so. Thus it seems to me that morals, ethics and religion should not be confused with leadership as such, and that assessment of training in them belongs elsewhere. In deciding whether a particular person is the type of leader you want you may need additional information about his character, but first you must decide whether he is a leader at all.

Most of us know a leader when we meet one but may find it very difficult to define why one person is and another is not a leader. Leadership has many manifestations and different circumstances may require a different mix but I contend that there is an essential core common to the characters of all leaders.

Leadership, I believe, is about getting other people to do things. It may be some immediate physical task, or the introduction of a new policy, or a change of attitude, or the acceptance of a philosophy of life, but whatever it is, it is either now or in the future going to affect people's behaviour.

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The Adult Model

Unless we are clear about the qualities we expect to find in adult leaders we are unlikely to be very successful in spotting leadership potential in young people still at school. In the following paragraphs I attempt to list those qualities I think a person in today's world needs if he or she is to be an effective leader.

To save constant duplication I shall use male gender throughout but what I say is to be taken as equally applicable to women as to men, to girls as to boys.

Style of Leadership

In the modern western world leadership has come increasingly to mean persuading people to adopt attitudes and courses of actions which the leader deems desirable. In this complex and technological age it is impossible for one person to be expert at everything, but those who are being led do expect the leader to be well informed about their part in the enterprise, even if he is not an expert in their particular field, and they expect him to consult them before he takes major decisions which affect them.

This situation points immediately to some of the qualities a leader in today's world must have. He must be sensible enough to approach his subordinates with tact, and yet firmness; he must be capable of understanding at least the broad outline of what it is they are being asked to do and be willing on the appropriate occasion, either literally or metaphorically, to roll up his sleeves and join them at the work face, and yet retain their respect; he must, above all, believe in the work they are doing and be able to communicate to them his own enthusiasm for it, and yet not allow himself to get so bogged down in detail that he loses sight of the overall picture.

Strength of Character

If he is to match up to this highly demanding job description he must possess strength of character and initiative as well as intelligence. He must be mentally tough and sufficiently sound of wind and limb to enable him to sustain a heavy workload over extended periods without his efficiency being impaired. The mental toughness will show itself in, amongst other things, his ability to resist pressure not only from his opponents but also from those on his own side. It can often require as much courage to resist the latter as the former.

Courage is, of course, an essential characteristic of the leader, who must also possess the power of decision. Ditherers cannot be good leaders. Once the good leader has decided his course he will hold to it. If the ship runs into foul weather he will stick to his guns and plough on through the storm when those about him are losing heart and wanting to turn tail. What is more, he must be able to put new heart into them and take them with him, thus carrying a double burden, his own and theirs. On the other hand, he must not be so proud and pig-headed that he is incapable of revoking a decision when the circumstances make it obvious that the only way out is to change course.

In all of this his success as a leader will depend on whether he has the personality to inspire confidence in those he is leading, even if he himself might sometimes have doubts. He must give full and public credit to those who have helped to bring that success about and not to hog the limelight for himself. Genuine (not bogus) modesty is an appealing virtue in, and a great asset to, the good leader.

Type of Intelligence

Intelligence is an aspect of leadership that can easily be misunderstood. The type of intelligence required in the leader is not necessarily synonymous with high academic achievement. The brilliant academic is not automatically a good leader.

The more important aspects of intelligence are the ability to sum up a situation rapidly and appreciate accurately the implications of alternative courses of action; the intuition to know how those will react to a decision and to understand why; the capability of seeing several jumps ahead and of being able to forecast the long-term effects of short term decisions; an accurate knowledge of possible opponents and the native cunning to outwit them; the sensitivity to know just how far people can be pressurised in each situation before the law of negative returns begins to operate; and the allied ability to judge where and at what level each subordinate will be best employed.

Determination versus Consideration

If the leader is to be capable of deploying these skills he must have confidence in himself and his ideas, and be sufficiently ruthless when the occasion demands to push aside all opposition. Contrary to what some people appear to think, it is not necessary to lose all humanity when exercising a sufficiency of ruthless determination to surmount an obstacle. The good leader will keep the welfare of his subordinates constantly in mind.


The leader must also possess initiative and a keen interest in all that goes on around him. He will thus keep himself well informed and go looking for useful ways to employ his talents; he is not the type who sits and waits for things to come to him.

The lazy and second-rate are always too busy to shoulder the extra burden: the real leader never. I am not here referring to the boss who tries to do everything himself and leaves nothing to his subordinates but the boss who takes a personal interest in everything that is going on in his sphere of influence and who motivates his subordinates by his own enthusiasm for what they are doing.


Popularity is not an essential hallmark of the leader, but the power to inspire respect for his ability, confidence in his judgement and trust in his loyalty and fairness are.

"Charisma" is a word which has been much in vogue of recent years and has been overworked in consequence. Certainly all the greatest leaders have had charisma and every leader needs a touch of it, but in its truest sense it is an exceptional and, almost by definition, an indefinable quality.

A more practical requirement in the leader is the ability to communicate. He must have his aims and objectives clear in his own mind first and then be able to put them across to his subordinates with equal clarity. Every man in the team should now precisely what is required of him. They may not like what they have to do and may have no particular affection for the leader, but, if he is effective, they will do it all the same, and do it well.

Popularity is little more than a bonus. Leaders who seek popularity for its own sake will sooner or later come unstuck. A sense of humour and a perennially cheerful and effervescent personality can be a help in creating a happy atmosphere and jollying people along in times of stress but are not indispensable to effective leadership.


I have left till last what I regard as in many ways the most important of all aspects of leadership, loyalty. True loyalty faces in two directions simultaneously, upwards to one's superiors and downwards to one's subordinates. Those who have appointed him must know that they can depend on him to support them to the utmost of his ability. Likewise his subordinates must be able to trust him instinctively. They must know that, though he may give them a good wigging on occasions, he can be relied upon to be equally savage in defending them against outsiders.

Nothing undermines morale quicker than the discovery that the boss has let you down: nothing binds subordinates more strongly to their leader than the knowledge that he will accept the ultimate responsibility for their actions and if they make mistakes, will stand in the front line to take the fire, even though he plays merry hell with them afterwards. People will put up with all sorts of failings and eccentricities in a leader provided they know he is straight, that any demands he makes on them or on their time he will match with equal or equivalent demands on himself and his time, and that when the chips are down he will stand with them shoulder to shoulder, whatever the outcome.

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Assessment of Leadership Potential in Schools

Potential not Performance

Within the RFES we are, of course, looking for a particular type of leader, though it is easier to say what we are not looking for than what we are. We are not, for example, looking for potential urban gang leaders. When they are first proposed to us few of our beneficiaries have any definite idea of what career they want to follow, so our leader may turn out to be a lawyer, a salesman, a priest, an Army officer, a merchant banker and so on.

We are not, therefore, in the business of career assessment. On the other hand most of us would agree that our beneficiaries should be what, for want of a better term, one might call "good citizensâ€Ã‚. This implies a value judgement which would need definition were it to be used for assessment purposes, but broadly I take it to mean that we would want our man to be willing to accept authority and to appreciate the value of the rule of law, to be willing to put in a good days work, to have the guts to tell the truth even though to do so may put him in a bad light, to be a man of his word, to have genuine interest in his fellow men and to show kindness to those junior or less fortunate than himself, to have what the Romans called pietas towards his family.

Extra-mural Endeavour and Commitment

I believe the most telling and reliable evidence of leadership potential is usually to be found outside the formal school timetable. I dare say most of us can recall boys who were stars at school but by comparison achieved little afterwards (like meteorites they seemed to burn up prematurely) and, conversely, boys who were solid but unremarkable citizens at school but who later made a significant impact on society in which they moved. What made the difference between them?

In every example of either case that I have known personally the clues to adult performance were to be found as much as what the individual did outside formal school hours as in what he did in them. During the organised activities of the school day, pupils are under constant staff supervision and are, as it were, supported by the institutional scaffolding. When assessing a boy, I want to know what he does with himself when the scaffolding is removed.

I think most headmasters would be able to say of their best boys that their names cropped up in almost every context, that they worked hard at their studies, they gave of their best on the sports field even if they had no great talent, they participated in as many other activities as there was time for, they were helpful and loyal to staff and were generally a good influence all round. In other words they gave of themselves and inspired others to do likewise. Thus it is commitment and unselfish endeavour we should be looking for.

I set much store by the old aphorism: "If you want to get a job done quickly and well, ask a busy man". The "busy men", I found, were not always the captains of the tennis teams or the scholars with four top levels, who sometimes came embarrassingly unstuck in the selection exercises. I would expect a real leader to stand out among his contemporaries by virtue of his initiative and commitment. Because he knows how to organise himself, he can find the time to relax and enjoy himself as well as anyone else. The outstanding men I have known have not only done their jobs better than others but their hobbies as well. They seemed to have the knack of endowing with a certain professionalism everything they touched.

The Difference between the RFES and Other Schemes

Because I have tried to highlight a particular point and emphasise a particular aspect of character it may be thought that I attach too little importance to the organised part of school life. This would be very far from the truth. Clearly what goes on in the classroom, on the sportsfield and in the common room is of very great importance and must form the foundation of any assessment. Moreover, if a boy is a house or school prefect, or captain of a team in a major sport where actual leadership is required on the field of play, or an NCO in the CCF, for example, then one can begin to talk about actual leadership performance and not just potential.

The point, I think, we have got to get across is that whereas the traditional scholarship is awarded for talent and ability, academic, musical or sporting, and whereas some charitable trusts concern themselves with a particular category of child (for example, sons of clergy), our scheme does not look at any of these things in isolation but is concerned with the whole man set against all the circumstances of his background.

We want to help, where there is need, young people who have the strength of character and those human qualities which will enable them to make a significant impact for good on those with whom they live and work as adults; who in other words, will enhance the quality of life around them and take humanity one step further along the road of real progress.

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Training for leadership

Leadership is not a skill

It is my belief that leadership is not a skill and that therefore you cannot, in the normally accepted sense of the term, "train" a person to be a leader. What you can do is to provide the circumstances and the environment which will enable a person who possesses the qualities of leadership to gain practice and experience in exercising them. Leadership is something inherent above the level of a skill. You can teach the skills of management but not the flair and drive of leadership.

Leadership Courses

Any course which aims to find and develop leadership must be devised so as to extend the participants to the limits of their capabilities at this stage. As they gain more confidence, the frontiers of their capabilities can be gradually extended. The process leads to a gradual strengthening of a person's character. It is strength of character and belief in oneself, which as I have tried to indicate, are the sine qua non of leadership.

There is some debate as to whether such a course need to be mainly physical in content. The main aim is to toughen a person's character and enable them to develop the qualities of leadership. My own view is that, in the short time which is normally available for these courses, outdoor physical challenges constitute the best way of achieving the aim. Indeed the person who is not good at sport, and has a natural distaste for roughing it, is likely to gain more in character development from accepting the challenge and seeing it through than the person who finds such things easy.

The Case for Third Party Organisation

Many RFES schools now run adventurous training schemes of their own, so what might justify the Trustees channelling money into outside organisations which claim to provide leadership potential?

The answer is the chairman's desire to find a way of bridging the divide between the products of public and state schools. The best known of the third-party organisations which can claim to facilitate the development of leadership are the Outward Bound Trust and the Sail Training Association, but there are others.

The final paragraphs of Larry's report provide his recommendations for financial support to certain third-party organisations. For further reading please see Mr Cowen's book.

F. H. Parsons, Squadron Ldr.
Administrator RFES
24 July 1980

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