Reflections on Leadership

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…but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘;em.

Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 5.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. 

Eleanor Roosevelt

For most of my life, I have not really thought about leadership. That is a strange thing to say, because when I reflect back on my childhood, most of the people I admired, real and fictional (my heroes), were people who were leaders or who found themselves in a leadership position. Yet whilst identifying with them, and their circumstances, the concept of leadership never entered my head. In adult life, leadership is something I turned my mind to, perhaps because I (belatedly) found it interesting and perhaps because I became a manager where talk of leadership is inescapable.

I started work in education in 1989, as a lecturer in law in a college. I became a manager in 1999 and a senior manager in 2009. I now run my own company in an area unrelated to education. I came into management relatively late. Until the opportunity arose for my first management post, I had no ambition to manage and lead. Like many other college lecturers, my ambition was to pursue an academic career. For various reasons, that ambition was only ever half-heartedly pursued.

In 2009, I undertook a course for aspiring college principals. My expectations of what the course would be like were very different from how it turned out. I expected a course that would deal with the (for what of a better word) mechanics of Principalship: finance, funding, marketing, governance and the multitude of other topics that a college leader is expected to know about.

After completing the first of five 3 day residential courses, I had to write what was called a “leadership learning paper”. It was suggested that I should include in this paper my “Reflections on [my]learning from the experiences, discussions with colleagues and ideas that were developed [during the residential]”. I thought long and hard about what I had learned. During the three days residential, I was unsure about what, precisely, I was learning. At the conclusion of the three days I was still unsure. When I wrote the paper some two months later, I remained unsure.

There was, however, one part of that residential that resonated with me: we were shown a clip from a film about Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition. The term heroic leadership was used in introducing the film. For many people, I think, Shackleton would epitomise leadership, certainly he does for me. The reason that, on this particular occasion, the Shacklton film struck such a chord with me, however, was because leaders like Shackleton are the exception not the rule. For as long as I have been interested in leadership (which, as I mention above is not that long), it has always seemed to me that much (the overwhelming majority, no doubt) of the literature on leadership concentrates on the exceptions (Shackleton, Churchill, Napoleon, choose whomever are your favourites to expand the list). Just one example must suffice. A book by John Adair entitled Inspiring Leadership has the subtitle Learning from Great Leaders. As the title and subtitle suggest, the book is a roll call of a plethora of historic leadership figures.

I do not for a moment suggest that this is wrong nor that we cannot learn from such leadership studies. However, the leadership that happens day in day out in colleges, schools, factories and other organizations, at all levels, I should suggest, is carried out by very ordinary people whose names will never enter the history books. People who have not been born great; will never achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the letter that Malvolio reads out aloud had been written with the design of tricking him into making a fool of himself with Olivia. The comedic effect of the letter notwithstanding, as so often with Shakespeare, the words offer an acute observation of human nature, albeit a minute section of it. A few leaders are born great (Churchill, Gladstone), some are driven to achieve greatness (Napoleon) and others have it thrust upon them (Shackleton). No doubt the three categories overlap (Churchill and the second world war). It is my contention that the overwhelming majority of leaders do not fall into any of those three categories. Many are born highly talented, many are driven to succeed and no doubt many find themselves in the right place at the right time to achieve something special. Whilst I have no empirical evidence to support the following assertion, and it may be that I am the only example of the type of person my assertion refers to, I suggest that many (by no means all) managers and leaders in education colleges, and perhaps all organizations, are, to coin an expression, cul-de-sac leaders. For lecturers in colleges, there is no choice but to enter management if they want to progress in their careers. There is only one road out from career stagnation.  Some may regret setting out on that road; others rejoice and prove themselves highly competent leaders. Certainly, for me, it was a road I was very uncertain about taking. I hope I fall into the latter category. Any utterances I have made have been ones of relief rather than delight: it is for others to pronounce on my competence.

I am not sure that fear is the right word to describe how I felt about taking the management road. I had reached a point in my career where there was little or no challenge in what I was doing. I was most definitely uncertain about whether I had the qualities required to succeed as a manager. I believed then, as I do now, that there are few things that we can experience, however adverse they seem, from which we cannot gain. And I believe that I have gained enormously from my experiences of management and leadership. Whilst it would be no little use of hyperbole to say, with Eleanor Roosevelt, that my first leaderships steps forced me “to look fear in the face”, I certainly felt I was doing something that I was very unsure about.

In short, it is my contention that day to day leadership is exercised not by people who fall into one of Shakespeare’s elite triad but by people who are born competent, achieve competence of have competence thrust upon them.

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