What type of Tower Captain are you?


Tower Captains are at the coal face of setting the culture and atmosphere in a tower. They are the make or break of how individuals are recruited, utilised, encouraged and developed. They may well be the cause, directly or indirectly, of why individuals decide to leave a tower, or quit ringing altogether. For the purpose of this article the term Tower Captain also encompasses that of Ringing Master.

In our research, it has been quite remarkable the number of people who showed interest and concern regarding the leaky pipeline in ringing, but said “there’s no issue here”. Both men and women. Perhaps that is the case; perhaps many Tower Captains are fully conscious of their potential biases and have an excellent track record of retaining and developing women into influential positions within the tower, and beyond, But, perhaps the statement “there is no issue here”, is exactly what we should expect? After all unconscious bias is exactly that … unconscious. A detailed explanation of the psychology of unconscious bias (now increasingly referred to as implicit bias) is well beyond the scope of this article. Essentially it is thought to derive from short cuts the brain makes in order to make rapid judgements about the complex world around us. Generally very useful especially in primitive environments … but unfortunately not always accurate or fair.

Chris Sharp came to our group to see how he could be of help. I asked him to think about a concept for the ringing community to allow Tower Captains to begin to assess how effective they were at stopping the leaky pipeline. His ideas form an initial hypothesis which has not yet been tested or validated. However, we hope it will provide some opportunity for Tower Captains to reflect on their leadership style plus think about some tips and ideas to make change if so desired.

Tower Captain Type Model

The following model is intended to summarise how one might attempt to describe the traits of a Tower Captain associated with their likely propensity to successfully acknowledge and address gender bias in the tower. Here is a simple two dimensional type model combining the traits of empathy and propensity to change things (i.e. being high or low interventionist). Whilst these traits are considered critical to the development of gender equality in the tower they are most likely key to many other issues affecting the relative success of a group of ringers and crucially what kind of culture arises.


The Traits

High/low empathy

These traits could also be described as indicators of high and low emotional intelligence. This is a difficult concept to pin down though most of us would say we recognise people who are highly empathetic and those less so. Typical behaviours surrounding high empathy include: understanding others’ feelings and perspectives; developing others through sensing their needs and bolstering their abilities; and reading a group’s emotional currents and power relationships. When we come to describe typical behaviour patterns of our four tower captain ‘types’ most readers will readily recognise degrees of empathy in each descriptor.

High Interventionist/Low interventionist

This reflects the degree to which our Tower Captain seeks to change the world! For example some will tend to continually innovate either responding to changing environments or simply to explore different ways of developing their band. Others may have developed a seemingly successful formula and seek to maintain what appears to have worked well before. Different responses to the Covid-19 situation might be revealing in this respect.

The Types

Readers will note that using the model one can identify four broad types having a combination of traits namely Accidental Promoter (high interventionist/low empathy), Passive Captain (low interventionist/low empathy, Kindly Captain (low interventionist/high empathy and finally Fair Developer (high interventionist/high empathy). We emphasise that these different types as we have called them seek to represent the dominant behaviour of Tower Captains. Individuals are individuals and will behave in different ways in different circumstances. However they will generally tend to display one or other type much of the time depending upon their relative position along the two axes. It follows that this model is about encouraging smarter behaviours rather than measuring the performance of individuals.

The Behavioural Outcomes

How might our four Tower Captain types behave in the tower? Let’s consider some possible examples. Many of these scenarios are taken from stories we’ve collected on the Women in Ringing website, private conversations and general observations.

Types in relation to band placement

Passive Captain (low empathy, low interventionist).
Generally allows ringers to catch hold where they like. May place the tenor and ask the rest to ‘fill in’. Where some ringers hog the tenor or heavier bells they are reticent to intervene.

Kindly Captain (high empathy, low interventionist).
Does not generally place the band but will consider development needs of individuals and in those cases place accordingly.

Accidental Promoter (low empathy, high intervention). Places the band according to their evaluation of ringers’ ability and the aim of the ringing. May accede to specific requests to ring a heavy bell but may well be openly critical of the ringer if they don’t do well.

Fair Developer (high empathy, high interventionist).
Will place the band according to a blend of individual development needs and/or their evaluation of individual ability. Will offer private constructive criticism and public encouragement when individuals are new to ringing heavier bells.

Developing confidence when ringing heavier bells is important so opportunity and encouragement are important factors benefiting all ringers. There is also likely to be a correlation between ringing back bells and developing conducting skills. Lack of opportunity and encouragement negatively impacts on ringers who do not have high confidence. More females than males are likely to fall into this category particularly exacerbated by the psychological impact of common well known negative stereotypes. Negative stereotypes can impact on confidence even when they are not overtly expressed.

Types in relation to conducting

Passive Captain (low empathy, low interventionist).
Likely to stick with one or two well used conductors possibly including themselves. If a learner ( particularly one they do not perceive capable or interested) asks to try, they may ask them to self evaluate; “Can you do it?” Only very confident learners are likely to say yes, and hence only very confident ones are likely to ask. Also only confident learners are likely to seek opportunities at other towers.

Kindly Captain (high empathy, low interventionist).
May well stick with well proven and enthusiastic conductors and a limited method range. Opportunities for developing conducting skills will therefore be limited though self motivated individuals will be encouraged to conduct both in the tower and also to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Accidental Promoter (low empathy, high intervention).
Asks ringers to conduct touches according to their evaluation of ability. Where they perceive a learner is making rapid progress will readily encourage them to conduct. Their evaluation of competence may well include the learner’s ability to handle a heavy observation bell. Will not readily recognise that conducting skills are very much on public view and early loss of confidence risk is high. Not likely to privately counsel those whose confidence is low. May more readily display unconscious gender bias as illustrated in stories [1] (e.g. asking all available males if they wish to conduct).

Fair Developer (high empathy, high interventionist).
Will offer opportunities to budding conductors. Likely to attempt to reduce the negative impact of any early public failures. Opportunities likely to include a wider range of methods and suggested touches. Will more readily explore possible solutions to barriers such as the provision of microphones in noisy ringing chambers or equipping learner conductors to call from non-observation bells.

Conducting is a very public activity and the risk of ‘failure’ is high. Once again the building of confidence is key to ensure as many ringers as possible are given the opportunity to develop their conducting skills. The association between gender and confidence is referenced above. The difficulty faced by some women to have their voices heard in some ringing chambers has been raised as a very specific issue.[2] We suggest that solutions to that could be readily put in place where it is problematic.

Because there are so few female conductors it is possible that budding female conductors fall victim to what has been termed ‘stereotype threat’.[3] This is a complex area of psychology but essentially describes the possibility of raised anxiety leading to poorer performance in the undertaking of challenging tasks where there is an overt or implied stereotype present. The stereotype in this case being that women may be less capable than men in carrying out the complex mental activities associated with successful conducting.

Types in relation to children

Passive Captain (low empathy, low interventionist)
Will leave childcare impacts strictly with the ringers concerned to sort out. Unlikely to offer proactive arrangements or discuss with parents ways in which they can be accommodated. May actively insist that ringers must attend all or most practices/Sunday service ringing impacting negatively on those with caring duties.

Kindly Captain (high empathy, low interventionist)
Will welcome ringers attending with their children and will be supportive of arrangements individual ringers make with respect to childcare at the tower. Will be understanding with respect to frequency of attendance from those with childcare responsibilities.

Accidental Promoter (low empathy, high intervention)
Is likely to involve those with caring responsibilities when they come to the tower, but may not readily incorporate family friendly policies into his/her ringing plans. May well imply some disapproval to those who are only occasional attendees even though attendance is impacted by childcare demands.

Fair Developer (high empathy, high interventionist)
Will seek to actively provide for those who wish to bring children to ringing sessions. For instance providing safe spaces for childcare, arranging family friendly ringing events and specifically inviting those to ring who are looking after children [1].

A substantial reduction in ringing activity following the birth of children is very likely to be a major contributor to Ringing’s Leaky Pipeline. There are of course societal reasons why this does not apply so much to men. A number of proactive measures can be taken by tower captains to help address the loss suffered by individuals and the band. This might include;

  • The provision of focus practices at family friendly times and with child minding arrangements in place.
  • Proactive arrangements in the tower to encourage ringers to attend with children in safety.
  • Acceptance that regular attendance may not always be possible.
  • Being mindful to invite ringers who are nursing children on their knee to ring.
  • Keeping in mind people who have young children with respect to quarter and peal invitations.
  • Possible extended use of Ringing Room after Covid to keep up method knowledge.
  • The provision of open handbell practices.

Types in relation to band development

Passive Captain (low empathy, low interventionist)
The same thing is rung week after week and stretching targets are unlikely to be set. The rate of development of learners will largely depend on individuals’ levels of ambition and confidence. Social events, if any, will probably revolve around the pub after ringing and will be significantly influenced by individual members of the band rather than the Tower Captain.

Kindly Captain (high empathy, low interventionist)
Tendency to ring the same methods rather than try anything new. All members of the band will be encouraged to participate to a level within their comfort zone. Band members will feel reasonably well consulted on plans though new initiatives will be few and far between. The band will enthusiastically take part in striking competitions with the motto; “It’s the taking part that matters”. Social events will be organised occasionally and some attempt may be made to ensure they are family friendly.

Accidental Promoter (low empathy, high intervention)
Variety of methods rung with progressive pathways mapped out. Band members who are self-confident, ambitious and who fit that style of learning, will thrive. Quarters and peals organised with confident learners particularly benefiting from opportunities arising from being members of active peal bands. Social activities likely to be arranged by individual band members unlikely to consider minority or family needs.

Fair Developer (high empathy, high interventionist)
Proactively manages the band rather than solely the ringing. Introduces new ways of learning to assist different members of the band. Quarters and peals are arranged as part of the band’s development and organised where possible with caring needs in mind. Practice night and other focused practices are adapted to suit specific learning objectives. Social events are readily organised and are designed to be as inclusive as possible.

Different leadership styles result in different cultures which in the case of ringing results in a range of ringing experiences. We know from the stories submitted to Women in Ringing that different ringing experiences have a significant impact upon progress….and upon the gap in female attainment that we are trying to explain and address.

Tips for broadening your Tower Captaincy skills

Tower Captains volunteer a huge amount of their time and energy to the role, often over many years. There is no person within our community who aims to be bad at the job. We are not advocating that any one type is better than another. We are saying that it is important to be aware of your natural type and cognisant of the value this brings to the band. We also recognise there may be genuine reasons why one type works in one tower or on one practice night, when it wouldn’t be appropriate in another.

However, Tower Captains may want to broaden their skills and have a wider range of options in how they lead a band. This will make Tower Captains more agile to vary their approach when the need arises. Self-reflection is key to developing and broadening tower captaincy skills. Here are some tips to think about:

When making decisions in the tower, ask yourself two questions:

  • Why have I done it this way?
  • Could I have done it differently?

Human beings are creatures of habit, and we often make decisions because they are what we have always done. Begin to challenge yourself and ask yourself what are the assumptions behind your decision making. Why did I ask that person to conduct? Why did I place the band that way? Why did I let that particular person try something new? Could I have done it differently?

  • Remember that women often take more encouragement to “have a go” and will usually feel more reticent if there is a risk they may not get it right.
    • Give people warning to try something new so they have time to look it up and feel secure
    • Give people encouragement if it doesn’t go right. Be careful of stereotype threat: “At a branch practice I attempted to ring a heavier bell than I was used to in a method. I didn't completely mess up but it certainly left lots of room for improvement. Afterwards a few of the "kindly" men present said things like "that was a bit too big for you". I felt a bit embarrassed and decided I would stick to the light bells. That was until later in the same practice when a man who was also fairly inexperienced rang it and made a complete mess of it. The eye opener for me was the comments he received: "well done - a few more goes and you'll have it" and "have another try later - nearly there".”
    • Remember it’s OK to treat people differently so that they can achieve the same outcome:
  • Do you know that about people, or do you assume it? Particularly in relation to conducting and ringing heavier bells
    • “I once asked him if I could ring farther round the back at a 12-bell tower, and he placed me on the 5, before placing two less-experienced male ringers on the 10 and 12”
    • “When my husband and I walk into a tower as visitors, he is invited to call touches, asked if he's in charge at his home tower and of course offered the tenor immediately, before they've any idea of his or my ability”.
    • “When visiting towers where we are not known and my husband is always offered the tenor and I am not!”
    • “What I generally find, everywhere I go, is that where a male is running the practice, he automatically invites another male, usually one round the back end, to call even plain courses. Even online in Ringingroom.com.”
    • “I find men will assume they should ring the bigger bell and I have been told you will not manage that bell to which I rang it without a problem.”
  • Try to listen to yourself carefully and perhaps ask a trusted friend to monitor what you are saying.
    • Using phrases like “are you sure you can manage it?” if someone asks to try something new, adds doubt and leads to a lack of belief.
  • Could something more be done to accommodate younger children and allow parents, and particularly mums to fully participate?
  • Think about whether the post-ringing pub culture and timing suits everyone in the band. Could practice be arranged for a different time? Could socialising happen after Sunday morning ringing?

Most tower captains work hard to do the job to the best of their ability and are, of course, volunteers. The pointers contained in this article are not intended to be critical but rather to prompt discussion, thought and self-reflection, and to suggest ways in which they could try different approaches. Although it has been written against a background of female under-representation in ringing we firmly believe that the changes needed to redress that balance will benefit the exercise as a whole.

Further reading

[1] See Women in Ringing – Stories – Other People’s Expectations.

[2] See Women in Ringing – Stories – Conducting and Women.

[3] Stereotype threat: Claude M Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance”, American Psychologist, June 1997.


Julia Cater
Women in Ringing, CCCBR


Chris Sharp
Women in Ringing, CCCBR

This article was originally published in the Women in Ringing edition of the Ringing World.