Tom Hamilton – Headmaster and Leader, St Albans College

Collectively, in our education system and in most public schools we seem to have created a ‘Kolkata environment’, the opposite of energetic, barring the fortunate exceptions and pockets of excellence out there. Let me explain. In a video lecture by Professor Sumantra Ghoshal he explains that every year, in July, he used to go to Kolkata, India, for almost a month to visit his parents. But, in downtown Kolkata in July the temperature is over 100°F with humidity of 98 percent. He would spend most of his time indoors resting and conserving energy.

In contrast, he used to live in Fontainebleau, France, 40 miles south of Paris. He adds: “Around it is the protected forest of Fontainebleau, which is one of the prettiest forests in all of Europe. You enter the forest in spring, with a firm desire to have a very leisurely walk and you cannot. There is something about the smell of the air, about the trees, that will make you want to run, jog, jump up, catch a branch, to throw a stone, to do something.”

He called the difference between Kolkata and Fontainebleau “the smell of the place.” He hypothesized that many companies negatively affected their profit and loss performance because their corporate environment, the smell of their place, was more like Kolkata and less like Fontainebleau. In these companies, the culture disengaged employees rather than energized them. Some leaders create Kolkata environments while others manage to create Fontainebleau environments. (See YouTube – “The Smell Of The Place”)

Why do we have a ‘Kolkata environment’ in so many schools? Answers as to why would vary significantly. What role does leadership play in this? What difference if any can the leader of a school make?

Tom-Hamilton-St-Albans-School-e1366795701196Tom Hamilton, Headmaster at St Albans College in Pretoria has institutionalised a ‘Fontainebleau environment’. There have been great leaders before him, but as said by a colleague: “There is no doubt that it is he who has put St Alban’s College firmly on the map of top South African schools. In this he has left his own mark and his own legacy.”

I recently spent an afternoon there. Parents were taken on guided tours by students. Two of them – a grade 9 and grade 8 respectively – took our small group through the school grounds.

‘The smell of the place’, a positive and energetic atmosphere was tangible!

Before formal proceedings started on the outside lawn where all the seats were taken, I sat down on the grass. Not even ten seconds passed before a young man offered me a chair. Before the Head Boy and Headmaster gave their speeches I knew that great leadership had to be behind this energy. I was convinced in my mind that if other schools, businesses and even State Owned Enterprises could create such an energetic culture they would flourish. Or is the energy a result of performance?

Much can be said about why Hamilton has been so successful. When asked to summarise what his success can be ascribed to in three principles, he highlighted the following:

  1. I put people first, always: No matter what he is doing in his office, if there is somebody who wants to see him, no matter who they are, they can see him. He says: “There is never a task that is too important not to put a person first.” A former colleague states: “It is clear that St Alban’s is about relationships first and foremost, people are valued here.” And: “He sees people – he understands that a happy teacher is a good teacher, so he is reasonable in his requests or refusals and he takes great pleasure in affording his staff opportunities for growth and renewal.”
  2. Being rigorous but not ruthless: He is rigorous and knows what he wants. He knows what the standard is and demands it. And “I challenge people to reach that standard,” he comments. If they don’t, they know there is going to be some sort of response from him. He simply won’t let it slide. He does not wait until it is time for the formal appraisal. Others comment that he has allowed talented men and women onto the team, but add that “you cannot be a slacker on this team though – you need to lead, you need to grow and you need to intuitively love and want to nurture young men.” The standard is clear.
  3. Lack of fear to confront (candour and honesty): He views confrontation as an opportunity for all involved to grow, “irrespective of what the outcome might be, providing we approach it honestly,” Hamilton adds. He believes there is a degree of honesty in him: “I am honest about who I am. Some of my staff members are paragons of virtue compared to me. They are almost saintly men and woman and I am not. I am loose and do all sorts of weird things that some of them must look at with disdain.  I am fully aware that I am fallible and can get things wrong.” Yet, someone says of him: “He has learnt to see the good in others despite their frail humanity. He understands intimately that he has made mistakes and allows others to do the same – he has a huge capacity for forgiveness and this is a wonderful example.”

Hamilton also explains: “When I think you need to hear the honest truth I am going to give you a chance to hear it and I am going to hope that before you are out the door we are going to have a hug. If the honesty leads to you leaving the school I hope that when we next meet we will have a glass of wine or something together, that you’ll feel ‘I have not diminished one bit in his eyes’, in the sense of who I am as a person, a man or a woman, it’s just that I couldn’t work on his team anymore.”

He has always had a striving towards high standards, except that in his earlier career it was at the cost of people – almost ruthless. “It’s never at the cost of people now,” he exclaims. But like all great leaders do, he puts the cause, organisation or purpose first, and “if anything comes second it is the boys,” he says. He believes teachers are there to serve boys. However, “we are all here to serve the school.” As someone comments, “He talks to and with the boys. He laughs with the boys. He cries with the boys. Young and old alike know that he is human and thus, the “title” becomes irrelevant, but the respect for the man remains.”

When someone suggests something he always asks how the boys feel about that. What do they benefit from that? What about the customers, the parents who pay the fees? How will they benefit from that? Hamilton is convinced a lot of their staff sees it that way.

It is said of the DNA of the school: “The word ‘awesome’ is like the nucleus of a human cell: stuffed full of metres of DNA. Unravelling that astounding string of biological bits illuminates what it is that makes St Alban’s special.  Here are some Albanian ‘nucleotides’, transmitting genetic information from one generation of College boys to the next – DNA of positivity; DNA of significance, a step beyond success; DNA of innovation; DNA of relationship; DNA of difference and diversity.”

Township schoolWith this leadership and such a culture it should come as no surprise that St Albans has for years given back to the community. They adopted a school in Mamelodi, as an example. The “Fontainebleau Energy” is also starting to rub off there. In four years a 12% pass rate has moved up to 82%.  How do they do it? “We play soccer together, the kids do, the staff do, we braai meat together, we attend socials together.  Whenever I go to leadership conferences or whatever, the Principal of that school goes with me.” They did nothing fantastic, just did simple things well: “We taught, we were there on time, we were there on the days we said we were going to be there, we produced good resources, we followed up on what we said we were going to do and we added a bit of value here and there by coming out here to do stuff that we couldn’t do there.” They further insisted everyone had to have an email, start talking to each other by email, which “completely transcends the here and now”, says Hamilton. They simply treated people like they were really important. It is in essence the same sort of things they were doing at St Albans. Hamilton explains: “People are people, no matter where you’re from, we’re the same.” Their school cultures remain distinctly different, but Hamilton is convinced this high school “is going to become one of those iconic places you’ll want to be visiting shortly.”

And not surprisingly it is said of Hamilton: “Tom has been a great servant – he has grown with this school and has allowed it to thrive beyond him.” This is the legacy of a great leader, when what he has moved can thrive beyond him. In short, the leader of a school can make all the difference.

Hamilton comments on why some public schools don’t succeed?

Actually it’s not about resources, it’s about attitudes I think.  The thing that allows us to be a bit nimble and somewhat risky in a way is we’re not afraid of failure, we’re not afraid of embarrassment.  We don’t have a fear of failure mentality, we’re willing to try things and if it doesn’t all work out, as long as one or two or three does – that’s a good return.  We find in many State schools there’s a sense that you don’t want to be caught making a mistake so you just do the minimum, you just play it safe all the time.  Here our teachers push the boundaries. Sometimes with the staff it’s actually about trying to keep them in line just a little bit – saying hang on a bit, we’re trying three new things this term so we’re not going to try a fourth one.

I don’t think it’s apathy in the public system, I think it’s just, in some cases, a sense of hopelessness because there isn’t strong leadership from government, from the department, from the local district leaders. Principles to an extent are also strangled, because if you even want to engender something new, something different, they’ll say what’s in it for us?  The type of ethos you’re going to get in a school like St Albans or Pretoria Boys or Menlo Park is to give extra time to the students if they want it, but this isn’t common in this country, it’s not common. And it’s not common because teachers don’t see their primary role as education; they see it as the means of earning a living.  Teachers in good schools and great schools don’t see it as a means of making a living; they see it as a calling, a vocation.

If I talk about the happiness that we’ve got in our school, it’s not an overt desire or drive to achieve happiness.  To my mind, happiness is a by-product of all the good healthy things that happen.  If you set out to achieve happiness, there’s some deception going on, there’s something going on where perhaps just pretending you’re happy is enough to get by.  Happiness, when it happens, it just creeps up on you – it just means you’ve got good, strong, resilient, boisterous, healthy systems that take time to create.

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