On the humanity of leadership and legacies
Recently the foundation Principal of my school Mill Park Secondary College, Adrian Bennetto passed away at the age of 74. I was tasked with writing the notice for our College newsletter.
Opening in 1992, I count myself lucky to have been one of the original cohort of students at the College, and privileged to have been one of the inaugural school captains. In an interesting twist, after 4 years away at University, I ended up teaching at my alma mater, and now find myself in the position of Assistant Principal. In my time at the College I have learnt an enormous amount about leadership, however in writing about the man who founded and guided the College in its infancy I have learned a great deal more.
As students at the College, my classmates and I were strangely divided about our Principal. On the one hand we were intimidated and frightened by the man of few words and imposing physical stature that appeared and disappeared around the school like a silent phantom. On the other hand we were fascinated by him. While most of the kids in school nicknamed him “the man with the keys”, my friends and I in our adolescent wisdom coined a nickname we thought was much more apt, “the Godfather”. Yet, despite these fascinations from try-hard teenage comedians, we knew how important this enigma was to our school. Anyone who lived in Victoria in the early 1990’s remembers the turbulent political times and how divisive they were to education, yet here was our brand new school wanting for nothing. Our teachers continually told us who was to thank.
By the time I had become a teacher at the College, Mr. Bennetto had long retired, but one couldn’t help but feel the influence he had over the College, the staff and the community.
So when the time came for me to write about his career in education and time at Mill Park I reached out to my colleagues who had worked with him, and my former teachers who had long left the school. They sent through their thoughts, feelings and impressions of the man and his leadership. To say I was overwhelmed with the responses would be an understatement. There were just too many to include in my article, but the leadership lessons were there.
Any number of theories regarding why he was such a good leader were put forward, but I thought many people had missed their point in their making of it.
There were many who cited Adrian’s network of Department and Regional contacts as his biggest strength as a leader. The networks allowed him to procure the best possible teachers, resources and materials for our fledgling school. There were some who cited his delegation skills as his greatest strength. Once he had hired the best, he let them get on with their brief and didn’t interfere – providing genuine autonomy to create and build a better school. Yet I don’t think these were his greatest leadership strengths either.
Soon it became clear to me what was. Every person who sent me a memory, story, thought or theory articulated their respect for him as a human being, who genuinely cared for the people he employed and educated. His humanity forged relationships, built networks, built trust and accountability.
Everyone described his humanity in the fondest of terms. He articulated and displayed absolute trust in his people. This combined with a fierce loyalty to them as professionals, colleagues and friends allowed them to build their capacity in a seemingly limitless manner, which in turn made his staff fiercely loyal to him and the school, and created a culture of self-accountability. Perhaps the aspect of his humanity most neglected was his modesty. He never wanted or sought thanks, the limelight or celebrity. He was happy in his quiet stewardship of a great school and a great teaching staff.
So what is his legacy? Well, legacies are a hard thing to define, and the great thing about them is that everyone has a different perspective of them. So I think its fine if some people think his greatest legacy is the school itself, or his delegation skills, or his procurement of an entire library of books, lock stock and barrel ready for student use, even before the buildings were finished. For me his legacy is his humanity, and its ability to bring the best out of his people.
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