The marks of a true leader

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Melanie Lancaster celebrates her 20th anniversary as Gadra Matric School Principal. Photo: Timothy Hacksley

On Friday 25 August the teachers of the Gadra Matric School and other staff of Gadra Education paid tribute to Ms Melanie Lancaster.  They celebrated her 20th year as the Principal of the Gadra Matric School and saw it as an appropriate moment to reflect on the importance of leadership in the schooling context.

There is wide public recognition of the importance of good leadership in the political sphere. In South Africa, we have an excellent case study that demonstrates the immense influence that leaders plays in the fortunes of nation states. The three long-serving presidents that we have had since democracy – Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma – have all been very different from one another and their leadership has produced very different results.

Mandela will forever be iconic because he took the country out of apartheid into democracy; furthermore, he was a uniquely charismatic and reconciliatory leader. He led from the front in a variety of contexts and managed to win the hearts and minds of the vast majority of citizens, black and white alike.  He was the embodiment of forgiveness, having been incarcerated for almost three decades and then being willing to embrace his former prison warders and white South Africans in general. He led by example.

Thabo Mbeki was an aloof yet effective leader. His priorities were to deracialise the South African economy by growing a black middle class and to reduce poverty through an expansion of the welfare state. He managed to achieve solid economic outcomes and poverty was significantly reduced during his nine years in office, before he was unceremoniously dumped on the instructions of his nemesis, Jabob Zuma. Mbeki was a visionary, thoughtful leader, whose achievements would not have been possible without his consistency, resolve and iron-like determination to stay the course.

Jacob Zuma strode into power by rallying and mobilising a ‘coalition of the wounded’, comprising anyone and everyone who felt aggrieved by Mbeki. From the outset, Zuma was a manipulative self-interested populist. His main objectives over the past decade seem to have been to shore up his own political power, to build his own personal wealth and that of his family and friends, and to ensure that he never has to face multiple criminal charges for corruption, fraud and racketeering. Under his abysmal leadership, economic growth has slowed, unemployment has increased, the country has been downgraded to junk status and poverty is again worsening. There is therefore ample evidence that the quality of a country’s leadership has a significant bearing on its development trajectory.

Leadership is equally important in the schooling context. More specifically, the quality of a school principal is a major factor in determining overall school quality. Over the past twenty years, under the leadership of Melanie Lancaster, the Gadra Matric School (GMS) has produced consistently good results and over the most recent five years in particular it has emerged as the largest feeder school to Rhodes University. All school alumni speak of the love and concern that Melanie has for all students and the teaching staff has deep trust and respect for her. Her leadership style is best described as enabling and unassuming. When she was thanked on 25 August for her wonderful leadership, her response was that she still thinks of herself as school ‘coordinator’ rather than principal! This typifies the genuine humility that characterises her outstanding leadership of GMS.

Some may argue that it is easier to lead an independent school to success than a no-fee public school. After all, in the former one does not need to deal with the bureaucratic mazes, destructive unions and debilitating resource constraints that characterise the latter.

However, here in our own backyard, in Grahamstown, we have a perfectly clear and compelling example of the importance of leadership in a no-fee public school. What Ms Madeleine Schoeman has achieved in six short years at Ntsika High School is remarkable. Over the past three years, the number of Bachelor passes produced at the school has increased from seven (2014) to 11 (2015) and then all the way up to 22 (2016)!

In fact, Ntsika’s overall Grade 12 results were so good in 2016 that it outperformed a local fee-paying school, both in relation to the overall pass rate and the number of Bachelor passes. This is the first time in the history of Grahamstown that a no-fee high school has outperformed a fee-paying school in the matric examinations. A major reason for this is Madeleine’s brave and bold leadership. Her ability to mobilise various capacities available in the town through excellent networking skills has enabled her to offer the learners at Ntsika a meaningful, full academic experience.

Because of the central importance of school leadership, the Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University Dr Sizwe Mabizela, is to be commended for offering fully sponsored accredited leadership training to all local public school principals and their deputies. Mabizela’s commitment to revitalising public schooling in Grahamstown is tangible and substantial, and the leadership training offered by the university’s Business School shows that it is moreover strategic in its conceptualisation and delivery. Indeed, Mabizela is another example of an extraordinary leader in the local education sector.  Good leaders should be valued, acknowledged and supported because they make a positive contribution to and indelible impact on the lives of all who they lead.

  • Ashley Westaway is the manager of Gadra Education.
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