Economy & Policy

Schools and Leaders

Is school leadership different from corporate leadership?

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Mar 7, 2013 10:52:57 AM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at



The CEO sat next to me on the flight. We smiled, as old friends do when they meet after a gap of years. She had been my boss ten years ago, and I had learnt much of my leadership skills from her. She was of course now seen more in magazines and newspapers. I was but a teacher.

“What do you do now?”, she asked with her characteristic crooked smile.

“I run a school. Actually, it is almost two schools now”. A hint of pride in my voice.

It had been a tough ride. From the land to the clearances. From the idea to funds. Then the hard work of creating the models that had been buzzing in my head for years. Honed in the rich and poor classrooms I had stood in, sometimes teaching always learning.

“So you did not want to lead a company?”, she asked.

But I do, I thought. I lead a company of men and women who care. I lead a company of eager eyed students who would rather be with me at my school than anywhere else. I lead a company that has budgets and bugbears and targets and everything that your company has - only it is smaller. In monetary terms.

“Not the kind of company you do, no”, I smiled sweetly to soften the blow.

It glanced off her unseen. I was glad. She had been my mentor and had taught me much. I was grateful to her for the confidence in myself. She was my inspiration.

But her model of leadership would never work in a school. I tried some, and most had to be modified. For years I had heard teachers say - these consultants and their ways/these policies. They look nice on paper but our school is different.

Therein lies the fundamental difference. Companies deal with products and services that try to be the same. People who are held to the same standards. Schools deal with people who must be allowed to grow in their own ways. We support difference even as we seek higher standards.

The path to order in businesses is via standardisation. In schools, I know many have tried it. We impose uniforms. And syllabus. Everyone has the same books and the same teachers who must prepare each class (more boxing in there) for the same examinations. We try as much as we can to put our students and teachers in neat little boxes. But as a school leader I know this is the right way to run the school, but is not enough to nurture.

But she was not my guru for nothing, and her very next sentence disarmed me. “You and I do very similar work you know, but yours must feel more complex to you. Close contact with diverse ambitions does that.”

Corporate leadership is not very different from school leadership in its objectives and even in its theory. A workshop on either would look very similar if one only looked at the handouts and slides. Leadership in both would be about creating a vision, communicating the mission and building teams. But in its practice, the school leader is often dealing with a flatter structure and feels the pressure to offer more access. In schools, the norming often happens via rules and that could - and possibly must - seep through the leadership and management style of the head too. The authority is exercised in more traditional ways. Consensus is often led rather than allowed to evolve and management is often by task rather than by objective. All successful school leaders acknowledge that their forays into more ‘lenient’ ways of managing their teams have made things more difficult for them in the short run. Schools expect their leaders to hold them together, to maintain the hierarchy as proof of order and to inspire awe.

“Schools expect their leaders to inspire order a bit more than corporates do”, I asserted. “I have to be more hands on in my leadership. I cannot delegate it the way you can to your teams. My people expect me to take all the decisions. Being a leader in a school feels harder because I have to lead and manage both.”

“And you think I do not do both and more?” I could see that she was trying to stop herself from laughing. “The larger the organisation, the more there is to organise and manage - that much must be obvious. And while the risks, rewards and valuations are large, at the end of the day everything is about the people and their alignment. A leader constantly works to ensure their flock is in alignment with their vision. The only way to do that is to nurture their work. I call it leading, you see managing.”

“Do they not look up to you and expect you to make the choice?” I asked

“I have chosen the direction. They must walk the path, knowing that I am watching them every step of the way. That way, whenever they turn or stumble, they see me supporting them, cajoling them. Yes, it is hard work, much more than they will ever see. And yes I do know what happens in each branch, each shopfloor everyday. But that is what you and I are here for.” She smiled as she rose from her seat - “Lets talk more sometime, you have my numbers”

I knew I would not call, but I knew she was there for me. She, as she said, had shown the direction. I could make my own milestones.

(P.S. This story is not entirely fictional)

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