It's the kind of question that always provokes debate. In recent years, leadership has become a vogue area of study. Are leaders born or can they be trained? Do leaders inspire confidence and trust through their own dynamic personalities or as a result of their practical accomplishments?
Some argue Napoleon was a great leader because of his brilliant managerial skills. Others suggest Martin Luther King was exceptional due to his visionary personality. In FE, we are more likely to hear debates about transformational leaders as opposed to transactional.
Middle managers are encouraged to develop leadership potential, to study different styles and find the one that suits their department's culture best. Principals, these days, are being courted on all sides to show unswerving sector leadership. Sometimes this means they should be stimulating bottom-up leadership, or action-centred leadership, but most of the time it just means they should be big enough to push through government policy without wincing.
Ghandi had a purpose, the liberation of India from British rule. Churchill had a mission, the victory of British and Allied forces in the war against Nazi Germany. In fact, all the great leaders in the past shared one thing in common: they had a specific reason.
There were no colleges for leadership or courses dedicated to encouraging peer review of style effectiveness. We need these things, they didn't.
No. I'm not cynical about it all, I'm sure leadership training is useful.
With the leaders we've got these days, many wish a few more had been on a Centre for Excellence in Leadership course. But why don't we just face the fact that the reason the Government has stirred up leadership talk is because the sector does not have the revolutionary kind of leaders needed for the job it is being asked to do. The tension this creates, as state-owned organisations assume commercial business structures, is typical throughout the public sector. Despite efforts in the NHS, for example, to promote the change, the attempt to transfer management and leadership models developed in the private sector to the public, fails to take into account radical differences between them.
Private corporations are, after all, primarily serving the financial interests of their shareholders; profit is crucial, whereas public sector corporations should be serving the public.
But who defines how the public should be best served? Through debate and consultation? No need, the Government developed the idea of "stakeholders"
to circumnavigate the public. Anyway, we have the Learning and Skills Council, and they represent the "stakeholders" of the sector.
As a consequence, the Council has an obligation to ensure that the priorities which employers decide on are those that colleges are encouraged to accept. And if employers feel they are calling the shots, it is right to expect them to want colleges to be run efficiently.
The LSC and Government are complicit in this assumption and require colleges to produce data that the business world can understand, to prove that the sector is providing the kind of workforce the employers think they need. Hence, the over burdening of colleges with the collating of quantitative data that lecturers cannot see the relevance of.
"Leaders!" is the cry, but where is the honesty to admit that the kind of leaders required are ones with service sector business drive, not the left over pedagogues that still roam the classrooms of FE colleges hoping to teach students, rather than clients.
I'm not saying the sector could do without hard-headed financial management. I'd rather be in a college with a healthy financial account.
But if we are going to debate the kind of future leaders colleges will need, will somebody up there please be open about the mission. Or will somebody state explicitly that what the sector needs is leadership grounded in educational vision, belief and experience.
Nigel Newton is lecturer and educational researcher at New college, Swindon