The rebels can succeed, too

Observations on leadership

On the Today programme early in the new year came terrible news: those irritating goody-goodies I so hated at school were likely to go on to run the country's most important businesses. A MORI poll found that nearly 90 per cent of chief executives and board-level directors had held a leadership role at school, such as head boy or girl, prefect or sports captain. About 70 per cent had been prefects, 50 per cent school sports captains, 30 per cent head or deputy head boy or girl, and 29 per cent, as if being an annoying prig wasn't shameful enough, had led an extra-curricular youth group.

Yes, I have my own axe to grind. One morning in 1998 the teachers at my all-girls' state school in London placed a list on the noticeboard: their nominees for head and deputy head girl. I sauntered over to confirm my nomination, rehearsing an inaugural speech in my head. But by some oversight, my name had been missed out. When I confronted our deputy headteacher that afternoon it turned out it was no mistake. Apparently I lacked the necessary leadership skills. The girl who was finally chosen was one of those infuriating all-rounders: attractive, clever (but not outstanding), good at sports, and very popular. Not too different, it would seem, from Clare Chapman, human resources director at Tesco and one of MORI's interviewees. Chapman was a prefect, a games captain and later head girl at Carshalton High School for Girls. She remains very proud of that early responsibility and still has the badge - though I hope she doesn't wear it to work.

Well-roundedness is typical of the people MORI interviewed. Far from being unpopular swots, they were often interested in the arts, and were natural leaders of their social groups.

Almost three in ten took the lead in school plays and more than one in five was dominant in his or her group of friends. It might help if they'd been modest, but they clearly weren't. I dread to think how classmates felt about the respondent who said he was "competitive and sporting and a natural leader and also quite clever and hard-working".

But a significant minority of the school population is missing from this survey: the rebels. What if you cared more about spiky hair and eyeliner (the main traits of rebelliousness at my school in the 1990s) than hockey sticks and prefect badges? Are you for ever condemned to career mediocrity? Not according to Simon Woodroffe, who founded the Yo! Sushi chain in 1997 after a succession of unsatisfying jobs and a divorce. He left school with two A-levels but no positions of responsibility. "The key to being successful as an entrepreneur," Woodroffe says, "is to find your own way."

Gemma Stone, who set up her events management company Rock and Ruby early last year after being made redundant, says that the very qualities which ensured she was never a prefect - "I was always in trouble for talking too much" - are vital to her now. Entrepreneurs need unconventionality to succeed. At school, prefects and sports captains are symbols of the "establishment" and it is no surprise that they should go on to perform well in conventional business environments.

According to the Friends Reunited website, the head girl of my era at school has, sure enough, taken a degree in accounting for management and is on her way to domination in business. The ex-rebels? One's a policewoman. For the others, I'll just have to wait and see.