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In his Meditations, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius leaves the modern world a host of thoughts on how best to lead and the qualities he saw as essential to the role. Over a series of developed arguments, he arranges a number of behaviours and dispositions that are as relevant and meaningful today as they were when he put ‘pen to paper’. Over this past week I have enjoyed the company of those who would put themselves forward as leaders within the school. The candidates for Head Boy and Girl submitted their applications and had their interviews. 

It is a process every year that I am privileged to be part of. Full of the idealism of youth and the desire to make a difference, the conversations at interview are humbling. Although unique to each individual and articulated by their own perspectives and with their own agenda for change there are some common characteristics among the candidates that are worth dwelling on. 

To an individual they shared a disarming modesty. They were straightforward in their understanding of what they wanted and though some, taken by the moment, may have stumbled over words, the intent was similar. They expressed an interest in the whole not the individual part. There was scant regard for themselves and a real drive to make a change for the greater good. 

They were asked about the successes they had experienced and the disappointments. Their ability to hold both with a gentle grasp was intriguing. In one notable case the significance of success and disappointment was seen in the context of the passage of time. All things pass, this too will pass. To be taken up too intently in either is to lose focus on the journey and pitch tent in a lay-by thinking it the destination. There is a big difference between living in the moment and dwelling in it. The former suggests the appropriateness of neither looking back in anguish nor ahead wishing time away. The latter indulges self-interest in the misconception that it is the state of affairs when in fact it is transient.

The accumulation of wisdom through a variety of experiences, each one adding incrementally to the store of knowledge, balances success and failure in their proper perspective. Nowhere was this wisdom more finely expressed than in the conversation we had on the nature of leadership itself. A number of qualities were tabled. Leaders want to make a difference; they need to look after the people they lead and the common thread was the notion of selfless caring in the service of an ideal bigger than themselves. There was no grand standing, a quiet modesty that focused on getting things done more than on focusing on who did them and the associated acclaim were central to their thinking. I suspect our political leaders have much to learn from them.

Marcus Aurelius spoke of the best leader as one who in doing well by others acts as if not conscious of the deed. He compares them to a vine producing a cluster of grapes; without making further demands, they move on to the next task as the vine moves on to produce grapes in the next season.

The candidates also know that there can only be one chosen for each role. I disappointed some of them on Friday, that I did not relish and will never get used to. But such is life, if we wrap children in cotton wool and remove these moments of disappointment, we are anaesthetising them to life and doing them no favours.

Embley is about the formation of each child, this means being with them in the moments of joy and disappointment, to lose either is to destabilise children, to act inauthentically and to rob them of the disposition to develop fortitude. Cold comfort to those who will be disappointed, but I know that they will bear themselves with resolve to find another outlet and to express their desire to lead through the channel they make for themselves and seize the next opportunity holding lightly to the passing moment. In this, they are in step with the Stoics.

I’m sure you will join me in congratulating Charlotte and Jack on their appointment as Head Girl and Head Boy for the next academic year.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead


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