We are living through crazy, scary times. The challenges are acute and unprecedented, including educationally, as schools, colleges and universities now close their doors. More than ever, we need to act with compassion and show social solidarity, and nowhere should it be more clearly modelled than in the behaviour of leaders, no matter which sector they work in.
In a moment of crisis, we look to government for clarity as to how we should respond, what we need to do, day to day, to get by and stay safe. In times like these, we demand a certain sort of leadership from the people we have elected to high office. Where it is lacking, confusion, fear and disinformation quickly swell to fill the vacuum.
At the same time, we look to our leaders for another kind of clarity, what we might term moral clarity, a sense of where we all sit in relation to the whole and of the wider value of the things we are asked to do.
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This is an idea I have been playing around with for a few weeks, in relation to further education but more widely, too, as I watch the Covid-19 crisis play out.
I want to make a distinction between leadership, on the one hand, the task-oriented activity of being a chief executive and a principal; and, on the other, what I am calling leaderhood, which is something more – something which we all recognise, relating to leading a wider social context, but for which we do not yet have a name (or at least not one recognised by Microsoft spell check!).
And while I will continue to develop these ideas and will soon present them in the form of a longer essay, I want to try to explain what I understand by this new term and to describe its relevance to further education. I hope colleagues will contribute their own thoughts about this.
I chose "leaderhood" because the idea I want to explore is associated with terms such as "citizenhood", "motherhood" and "fatherhood" in that it conveys a deep sense both of relatedness and of open-ended, future-focused concern. It goes beyond the day-to-day work of managing learning, running an organisation and implementing national policy in a way that is sensitive to the here-and-now challenges faced by you and your community. These things are hugely important, as should go without saying. They are at the heart of leadership.
But leaderhood though goes further. It is a supra-organisational responsibility, it is about how we position ourselves and our sector in relation both to our values and to the wider context. It is about what we stand for and how we carry that in the world.
It is a kind of unapologetic, altruistic inner confidence in who we are that transcends institutional settings and the here and now, and that exists powerfully at the interface of different contexts.
The concept seems to me crucial to further education as we move into the new decade. I see it being expressed in our sure-footedness, in our willingness to share successes and in the freedom of our thinking. Crucially, I see it in our sense of societal purpose; the sure knowledge that we are the upholders of something that matters.
To my mind, this is a prerequisite of a sector that can play a full part in co-production (and not just co-planning) of policy, that is truly generative and independent, that is sure of itself and generous in its support of others, that has moral gravity and commands respect – the kind of respect that allows us to step between contexts with ease.
This is how I think of the next stage in the sector’s evolution. I see now, as FETL begins to plan to secure its own legacy, that the germ of this idea was there from our start in the notion we had of the kind of sector we wanted to see develop: confident, thoughtful and independent, leading not only colleges and independent training providers but also thinking about them and the sector to which they contribute.
On a wider scale, leaderhood is a source of the kind of social solidarity we desperately need. We need leadership, certainly, we need to know how to navigate the obstacles before us, but we need something more, too: a deep sense that the pragmatism we need to survive is founded on heartfelt values, the why of what we are doing and its wider, fulfilling reach.
It reminds us, finally, that even as we practise social distancing and self-isolation, we are rooted in a shared purpose and united in our solidarity with the most vulnerable.
Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership