Coaching & Leadership Development
February 26, 2020

Why Robots can’t replace School Leaders

Why Robots can’t replace School Leaders


The blog comes from Emma Turner (@Emma_Turner75), who is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire. 


There is much talk about future thinking and future-proofing and there are lists of jobs which in the future may be completed by robot technology.


Hundreds of thousands of people have read these articles, to see if their role falls under the remit of a yet-to-be-built robot.


But there are some jobs that we cannot envisage being done by a robot, which is devoid of emotion, empathy and human characteristics. There are some things that simply require heart to be successful. Leadership is one of those.

Leadership: Capturing hearts and minds


For anyone who has followed a sat-nav or become infuriated by the lack of nuance in a telephone voicemail menu, it is clear that there are some aspects of life that require more than a little humanity.


It is unlikely that the impassioned speeches of Martin Luther King or the kindness-driven changes implemented by Florence Nightingale would have made as much difference – however well-thought-through they were – had they not captured hearts and minds.


Leadership is about belief, and belief is about trust and connection and vision. However much we trust our computer systems, our sat-navs and our self-drive cars of the future, we cannot truly connect with them. They do not inspire us to go that extra mile or to give more of ourselves than we thought possible.


Computers do not inspire honesty or integrity or the vulnerability that leadership and change requires. They are blunt, binary instruments whose very function can be reduced to two simple digits.


Why robots can’t be leaders


Leadership requires more than a simple 1 or a 0. There is an infinite and sliding scale within the relationship of leader and team, and this cannot be expressed so simply. It is the shades of nuance, of grey, of the unmeasurable and unquantifiable aspects of trust, hope and inspiration that leaders elicit that will ensure that they are irreplaceable.


And it is these most uniquely human characteristics that make the most effective leaders so good at what they do.


There is no computer programme or hardware that can recognise the slight crack in a colleague’s voice or the almost imperceptible tremble of a hand as a document is handed over. There is no machine that can notice a slight hunch of usually buoyant shoulders or can see the gradual darkening of circles under eyes.


No machine can laugh uproariously at the joke of a six-year-old, or can offer comfort to a bereaved colleague or distressed parent. People do not seek to share their successes, their hopes and their dreams with a machine.


Vulnerabilities and successes


If leadership were straightforward, and governed only by common sense and yes/no decisions, then we would be one branching-tree diagram away from being led by a Microsoft or Apple program.


But real leaders are in the grey. They are in the swirling and ever-shifting mists of other people’s vulnerabilities, journeys and successes. They are between the binary, sifting through the unclear to find clarity and purpose.


Real, true and inspirational leaders can always clear the clouds and the fog to show those around them the sunlight. And as these weather magicians work their leadership magic, as they forage in the fog and sift through the swirling storms of constant information, they continue to project the forecast with accuracy. But, unlike the blunt icons of a weather app, they add that human narration.


They may seat a current damning forecast of bluster and biting cold alongside the longer-range forecast that reminds us all that summer will come. They ensure that we do not lose ourselves in a freezing downward spiral of a nine-week half-term.


Superbly human


This is why leadership is one of the most human of all roles. While we can learn and practise using apps and tech and artificial intelligence and augmented realities, the reality is that computers do not elicit trust and faith.


Even those among us who rely upon our sat-navs for orientation would not want to be led by an edu-satnav, governed only by a remote satellite map of the landscape and no appreciation of the local climate.


Leaders do not have to be superheroes, but they do need to be superbly human. I have worked for leaders who have lacked humanity, or who have had the tact and diplomacy skills of an unwieldy lump hammer. Despite their enviable intellect, I would not have followed them.


Those with scintillating intellect, but the warmth of a concrete flagstone, were the ones for whom I would have done what needed to be done, but nothing more.


Computer says ‘no’


The leaders I would have driven off a cliff for are those who know they are leading people to a vision. I have been in awe of leaders who managed to have meaningful words with all staff they encountered during the ebb and flow of the day.


It is the leaders who remember who has the poorly dog or the sick child, or who has the house move coming up, who have been the ones I would have gladly followed.


Leadership is of people and all the messiness they entail: their energy, their worries, their unique fingerprints of competencies. All of this – alongside the need to be strategic – is something I doubt will ever be replaced by robot technology.


In fact, so human, so complex and so intrinsically grey is leadership that, should an avatar be asked to take up a leadership post, I have a feeling its response would simply be: “Computer says no.”


We believe that authenticity, compassion and humanity are all crucial for both supporting great leadership and developing healthy schools.


Yet nurturing such qualities as a school leader can be exceedingly challenging, particularly in the context of an education system which has not, as yet, found a consistent way to enable school leaders to embrace their vulnerability and true sense of personhood.


That’s why in October 2020, we will once again host Headteachers & School Leaders from across the country for our very special “Education for the Soul” conference.


This conference will feature a new selection of expert speakers and workshop hosts, who will be sharing their insights into how school leaders can look after their own well-being, get the most out of those they lead and deliver the best outcomes for their pupils.


The conference will aim to build on the outcomes of our previous “Education for the Soul” conferences and seek to explore how school leaders and teachers can learn to lead with integrity, depth and purpose.


As part of this, we will look into how individuals can stay connected to their “why” and their deepest values. Above all, “Education for the Soul” 2020 will aim to help school leaders and teachers:


– Foster a deep sense of vocation and purpose amongst all staff

– Increase their understanding of the relationship between school development and personal development

– Keep hope, joy passion, commitment and creativity at the heart of their school and relationships with self and others

Learn More

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