Back in that long hot summer of 1976, a young musician released an album of songs that would enter the bloodstream of the western world.
Composed, arranged and performed by Stevie Wonder, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ brought a pulsing new dynamic to popular music, with lyrics that were sometimes personal, sometimes spiritual and sometimes furious. For every anthem of romantic love, there was a song of rage.
I’m listening as I type, in the early margins of another day. I hear the sublimely repetitive ‘I Wish’. There’s Stevie’s tribute to a musical hero, ‘Sir Duke’. There are those radio airplay standbys – ‘Another Star’, ‘As’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, that life-enhancing welcome to a new baby.
This is, as the title promises us, an album brimming with songs in the key of life.
The album begins with one composition that seems especially relevant all these years on. The opening track is ‘Love’s in Need of Love Today’. It speaks across the years. Our beautiful planet has never felt quite as battered, ravaged by conflict, sullied by toxic disputes and a re-emergence of forms of prejudice that we thought we had seen the last of.
Truly, love’s in need of love today.
But if we have learnt anything about the convenience of digital technology and its capacity to connect human beings across continents, to feed us news and opinion before we’ve had time to digest their significance, then we also know that this glut of information has made us feel more precarious. Now that we hear of more crime, more conflict, more mayhem, it can lead us to assume that there is more crime, conflict and mayhem. Social media can feed our anxieties in an already over-anxious age.
In reality, if love is in need of love today, then so is leadership. It’s become an almost dirty word. Our politicians are too frequently sneered at, mocked, blamed. In my own profession, there’s a leadership crisis. School and college leaders are leaving their posts and there’s no lengthy queue of candidates waiting to step into our shoes.
In every walk of life, it seems, people have become nervous of stepping up, of taking on leadership responsibilities, perhaps because they know the price is too much sniping from the sidelines.
That’s why at our school we have leadership as a core value. Our motto is ‘Creating tomorrow’s leaders’. We recently took 30 students to Shanghai as part of an international leadership programme. Our Head Boy and Girl have been interviewing younger students for the new Year 11 leadership team. We have a team of 60 prefects. Younger students are now used to leading projects in partner primary schools. And – significantly – we are creating new senior leadership opportunities for a our teachers so that we are actively growing the next generation of senior leaders to work across Suffolk schools and beyond.
I mention all of this because in times of political gloom I head back to a favourite television series – ‘The West Wing’. It’s a mammoth viewing undertaking, but one that refills depleted tanks of optimism. From the Oval Office of Martin Sheen’s Presidency, the show reminds us that political leaders can, as Napoleon said, be dealers in hope.
The series writer Aaron Sorkin went on to write another favourite show – ‘The Newsroom’. In its opening episode, jaded, cynical news anchorman Will McAvoy is asked by a student audience what makes America the world’s greatest country. He replies – to gasps of disbelief – that America isn’t. Then he says this:
‘Once we stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars.’
Love’s in need of love today, but so too is leadership.
Sometimes we have to lift ourselves beyond the prevailing gloom and remind ourselves of the unstoppable spirit of optimism that makes leadership – in all walks of life - such a privilege.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds