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Chris Miller, Cumming House 1966 - Retired Oil and Energy Professional

Leadership in Business - a Retrospective from an Old Gordonstounian

Chris Miller, Cumming 1966The Plato Legacy

Kurt Hahn's thinking when he created Gordonstoun was heavily influenced by the writings of Plato and in particular through the thoughts expressed by Socrates in Plato's 'Republic'.  Socrates points out the human tendency to be corrupted by power inevitably leads to tyrannical forms of government.  From this, he concludes that ruling should be left to philosophers, who are the most just and therefore least susceptible to corruption. He goes on to describe a hierarchical society, but one nevertheless based on equality of opportunity; thus there are no slaves and no discrimination between men and women. Indeed both genders are to be taught the same things, so that they are able to make the same contribution to society based on their respective skills.  At the top of his hierarchy, immediately beneath the 'Philosopher Kings', Plato describes a class of 'Guardians'.  Their role, as their name suggests, is to ensure in a caring and just manner that the guiding principles of the society are adhered to. The next level down is a class of 'Producers', again based on their respective skills rather than levels of wealth.  A number of specific provisions aim to avoid making the people weak, for example the substitution of a universal educational system for both men and women, instead of the traditional emphasis of Greek society principally on music, poetry and theatre. Throughout this entire hierarchy all of the citizens are able to advance and take on more responsibility.  However, while these provisions apply to all classes, the expectations of behaviour and responsibility from those nearer the top are much greater than from those lower down the organisation.

It is interesting to note straight away how Plato's thoughts so easily apply to the modern business world.  For instance, through Socrates, he points out the human tendency to be corrupted by power inevitably leads down the road to timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. From this, he concludes that ruling should be left to philosophers, who are the most just and therefore least susceptible to corruption. This "good city" is depicted as being governed by philosopher-kings; disinterested persons who rule not for their personal enjoyment, but for the good of the city-state.  How true all this is of today's CEOs and business organisations.  Managers who are simply driven by their personal ambition or love of honour, succeed no more than those who give no direction and delegate aimlessly to their subordinates, leaving them collectively to make decisions.  In my experience the great majority of those in the work place much prefer to work in an environment where the direction is clear and constant, while at the same time their views are listened to and demonstratively taken into account.     

The School Motto

I cannot emphasize enough how inspiring the School's motto has been to me.  'Plus Est en Vous', which we translated as 'More is in you than you think', still resonates in my mind and is a positive encouragement in a broad cross section of situations, both in the work place and elsewhere.

Gordonstoun's Tiered Structure

In reflection of Plato's society Hahn broke away from the traditional English public School structure which simply had, at the top end, a Head boy and Prefects, while the rest of their school population had no particularly described responsibility, except perhaps on the playing field and in unofficial social groupings (i.e. school boy ‘gangs’).  In its place Gordonstoun had a tiered structure denoted by a simple small strip of material worn of the breast of a sweater. Most importantly pupils advanced through this organisation from day one of their time at the school. Each level carried with it, on one hand an increasing degree of responsibility, while on the other an increasing sense of freedom.  While the lower levels were selected by the Housemasters, the upper end, the 'Colour Bearers', were selected by their peers.  The Guardian was appointed by the Headmaster from amongst this latter group.

Looking back, I can now see that my experience of Gordonstoun's internal structure prepared me well for both of my major work experiences.  In the Navy for instance it never occurred to me that there was some sort of significant divide between officers and ratings; but on the contrary that the total ship’s company were a team, with each individual having both an important contribution to make. Within this structure the officers and the Senior Ratings collectively provided the necessary leadership.  In Shell too I feel that I instinctively felt that the individuals within my various teams all had a significant input to make to any decision making process.  Middle managers needed support on one hand and room to perform their duties on the other.

The Promotion System

The School’s all embracing system instinctively created an environment that recognised leadership at all levels within the structure. This in turn led to both respect for others and in my experience a caring environment.  'White Stripers', for example, quite rightly felt that they had as much right to express and opinion as a 'Colour Bearer' - and that their opinion was to be taken into account.  Again this is a good example of involving the relevant people in any decision making process.  An equally important aspect was that there was never any question of the most senior boys being able in any way to directly punish their juniors.  The natural respect within the system was sufficient to ensure that the leadership demonstrated by one’s seniors was to be followed.  This overall sense of universal accountability provided a critical aspect that was irreversibly woven into this structure, namely a strong sense of compassion.

Colour Bearers with Headmaster Mr Chew

I once was lucky enough to have breakfast with Kurt Hahn and he specifically talked to us about the importance of always retaining a compassionate nature in one’s life.  In particular he talked about the lessons to be learnt from the parable of the ’Good Samaritan’, clearly a favourite Bible story of his.

Perhaps surprisingly in retrospect, religion did not seem to play a big part in our daily life at the school. We certainly had two Ministers on the staff, one Church of Scotland and the other Presbyterian and they not only led worship, but also took the regular religious studies classes*. Chapel as it was called was for most of my time held in the ‘Services Centre’, St Christopher’s only opening during my last year in the school.  For me the Michael Kirk was a place of meditation and quiet solitude, its spiritual significance enhanced by having to approach it along the ‘Silent Walk’.

*   Interestingly the only time I recall being introduced to Plato’s Republic and its significance to the School was in a religious studies class; otherwise it was seldom, if ever, mentioned!    

An important feature of the school day was the nightly completion of the 'Training Plan'.  In retrospect this check-off list, which among other things included 2 x warm washes, 2 x cold showers, 2 x clean teeth, 60 x skips etc., was relatively mundane, but the fact that you completed it on your own and that, except in the first year, nobody else looked at your record, provided a major contribution towards one's self honesty and self discipline.  An all important aspect was that if you failed to complete the daily tasks a pre ordained number of times, you would have to give yourself a walking punishment, which again you undertook in your own free time.

This emphasis on self honesty led inevitably to good self discipline.  You had to be organised to complete these various types of tasks during your day in addition to the normal school routine. Again looking back I now appreciate that this practice became instilled in me and allowed me to keep on top of my work throughout me working life.

There was also a strong sense of the value placed on trust.  I mentioned it in relation to the training plan, but in reality in pervaded every aspect of our daily life at the school.  This too has been a good lesson, for it led to not just being trusted by the teachers, but also to a high level of trust between the boys themselves.  In the work place also, when a manager delegates it is critical that the recipient feels that they are being trusted to simply get on with the task. 

This whole system was an excellent introduction to ethical behaviour; on one side the ability to trust others and on the other the importance of being truthful with yourself, with your staff and, in business with your customers.  I am certain that we never discussed this concept at the school, but it nevertheless has remained with me as a legacy.  Undertaking a walking punishment in your time without any form of supervision inevitably leads to a regime of self discipline and honesty in one's own life.

The Services

The various services were a very important part of school life.  Examples such as the Fire Service, the Coastguard and the Mountain Rescue all instilled in us both a sense of responsibility and of community.  The contribution we made was to more than just within the bounds of the Gordonstoun estate.  In other words our actions could and did have repercussions for others, often for people we would not otherwise have met; again an important lesson in business.  For example, I worked in Nigeria for three years and it was always critical to keep constantly in mind that our actions could, if done well, benefit a local community, but if done badly could equally cause unnecessary hardship.

Participation in the activities of the Services also allowed individuals to build up a level of courage. If you are faced with a burning house or are searching on a snow swept moor it really challenges one’s own sense of self preservation – a sense that by using the skills you have been taught you can overcome that fear to benefit those who are clearly in greater peril and seek help. Equally importantly it provided increased levels of stress in an otherwise relatively benign school environment.  Whether it was burning scrubland or searching for a person on a dark, snow clad moor we had no option but to come to terms with the effect such experiences were imposing on our physical and emotional responses. In a great many ways this was invaluable experience when in later life I was faced with making decisions in what appears to be an increasingly complex business world.  I did not think too much about this at the time, but when I look back I am more able to appreciate that my ability to make what turned out to be quick but nevertheless sound business decisions perhaps had its roots in experiences I had had directing the fighting of fires!

Sailing and Expeditions

Today’s leaders have to appear to instinctively operate in a volatile and complex world. At Gordonstoun, through the build up of personal courage when faced with the wiles of nature, the sailing experiences in the Moray Firth and onboard the school’s yawls in particular made an important contribution to an individuals’ ability to manage in an environment which so easily could be filled with uncertainty.  Likewise weekends spent camping and exploring in the Cairngorms taught one skills in self preservation and gave an opportunity to demonstrate active leadership.  As a teenager leading a group of one’s school mates high up in the Cairngorms, occasionally in adverse conditions, quickly taught us how to plan ahead using the best of the information available, how to set a target and how to ensure that one’s team bought in to and felt comfortable with the leadership that we provided.    

The Lesson of Equality in the Classroom

Plato placed significant emphasis on equality within education, not just between gender groups, but also across all individuals.  Hahn's system of work assessment in the classroom skilfully reflected this requisite.  For instance, it fully recognised that we all individually have specific skills.  So assessment was based not on the constant recognition of the academic brightest within a class, but took into account individuals' capabilities.  Thus the brightest and the least bright could well end up with the same assessment; indeed if the former had clearly not worked hard enough they would be marked down as a consequence.

Cumming House 1966

In the workplace too we all have specific skills and the good manager very much needs to recognise and encourage this amongst his team.  For example, some are natural buyers, while others are natural sellers; some are by inclination engineers and others Human Resource professionals.  At the same time we all need to learn from those we work with.  Thus the best buyer fully understands the needs and practices and needs of the sellers with whom he deals.  The best CEOs both fully understand the capabilities of their teams and of the market place within which they seek to successfully operate.

A Final Thought on Leadership

Robin S Sharma wrote “Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire team-mates and customers.” In many ways this sums up well what was quietly instilled in me during my time at Gordonstoun, now 50 years ago!

Key learning points from my Gordonstoun days

  • Respect for others
  • Leadership at all levels
  • Caring for others
  • The value of listening to a cross section of opinions                         
  • Involving all in the decision making process
  • We all have skills
  • Nurturing individual skills
  • Learning from others
  • Self Honesty
  • Learning to make decisions, including in stressful situations

To read more Alumni articles, follow this link.


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