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Memories of a very special person

Our Associate Dave Harris describes the privilege of working with the late Professor John West-Burnham

I was privileged to meet John on many occasions and I'm proud to have had him touch my life and career.  When I think of him, I think of warmth, kindness and incredible wisdom.

I met him in three different points in my life, each of which have helped mould the leader and individual I have become.

For that I will forever be grateful.

I first met John as a student headteacher. I was starting my leadership journey with a course for aspiring leaders at Hull University, run by John. He opened my eyes to the complexity of leadership, that it was so much more then telling people what to do.

In his gentle, calm and assured way, he showed that the most important thing a leader ever did was to share their values and ethos. It was the first time I realised that the quickest point from A to B was not always a straight line.

John lit the embers of change management in my mind and, over the years, this is a passion that has turned into a fire. I can even credit John with helping me obtain my first headship. His work gave me the confidence to be the leader I wanted to be, to realise that it was not always what you did but how you did it.

Secondly, as a headteacher, I knew that I was only ever as good as the team that I worked with. I therefore asked John if he would come and work as a mentor/coach to the aspiring leaders who formed the school’s leadership team.

I watched in admiration as he helped provide the clarity to others that he had given me a few years earlier. His understanding of humans was immense, as was his ability to see beyond their surface character traits to reveal the passionate educators beneath.

He was always calm and positive and touched the lives of many in the schools I led.

Thirdly, following my retirement from headship, John and I kept in contact via regular evening meals at a beautiful country pub in Nottinghamshire. Over excellent food, we would talk about the huge array of great educational research in the stratosphere, bemoaning that so much of it was being ignored by the tunnel-vision of the ‘get better grades’ movement.

With this in mind, we decided to co-author what became the best-selling Leadership Dialogues. In these books, we matched John’s immense knowledge of research with my practical headship experience to produce materials that have helped thousands of school leaders and their teams plot their own school improvement journeys.

Spending time with him exploring the most useful research in this way was a delight and a great privilege and to subsequently have my name next to his on these books is one of my proudest achievements.

Working with John, whether as trainee, coach or co-author was something I will never forget. He was one of the wisest people I know and I feel very honoured to have had him influence my life.

I have used his words with thousands of leaders:

“Moral Leadership is often described as the challenge of converting principles into practice... In the final analysis leadership is, in Warren Bennis’s famous phrase, about ‘doing the right things'.".

Thank you for helping me do the right things, John.

Your work will live on for generations.

Dave Harris

Professor John West-Burnham

About the author

Dave Harris

Dave is an experienced school leader with a unique international grasp of what makes schools tick. He is the author of Brave Heads, Independent Thinking on Transition and the Leadership Dialogues series with the late Professor John West Burnham.

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