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Growing our own

There should be no shortage of aspiring leaders in the learning and skills sector. After all, isn't good leadership really the same thing as excellent teaching and learning? In the best classrooms everyone works together, shares a purpose, contributes, listens, learns, is acknowledged, daring, creative and gets excellent results.

But people in this sector aren't queuing to be leaders. In the past 10 years, most young and middle-aged lecturers and administrators have decided that leadership just isn't worth the bother.

Of course, they are wrong. There is no better job than that of college principal. Yet the new Centre for Excellence in Leadership might have its work cut out to convince people.

There are good reasons for this lack of interest. People don't want to have to defend the indefensible - curriculum and qualifications that are not fit for purpose, bureaucracy, and an inspection regime that judges rather than develops. And there is the question of role models - a few leaders seem to have inflated opinions of themselves but hold their staff in very low esteem. It is not hard to see why people shun promotion.

So let's hope that the centre can inspire a new kind of leadership: one that takes a whole-systems approach; one in which self-management replaces command; in which intelligent accountability replaces the audit culture.

The time is certainly ripe. And if anyone has faith in this new era it is Lynne Sedgmore, the recently appointed director of the centre of excellence. She must now paint the portrait of future leadership.

The most challenging roles are those in middle-management. Senior management is no more demanding, though different. Middle-managers need support to do their jobs well, and to inspire others to climb the ladder.

The centre must grow talent. Leaders are not necessarily born confident, and the sector's culture can easily undermine. Constructive criticism will help tomorrow's leaders to make the required development.

Secure, self-critical leaders bring out the best in themselves and others, so it is a very good sign that the centre will offer time for self-reflection with individual coaching and mentoring.

Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools, believes that intellectual curiosity is a characteristic of all good teachers. I think the same is true of good leaders.

Asking questions and listening to the answers - these are essential leadership skills. And asking the right questions will provide meetings with tighter focus than traditional agendas.

Leaders must design meetings as teachers plan lessons. Simple process tools and large- group approaches such as "appreciative enquiry" and "open space" will help to promote the right balance of power and participation.

All being well, the centre of excellence will encourage leaders to try out these crucial strategies. Just like the rest of us, leaders must be able to have a go and make mistakes - to be free enough to "try and try again".

Experimentation at the centre will bring some welcome change to the culture of the learning and skills sector. Wouldn't it be extraordinary if the sector became known as the success story of the education system, where creativity flourishes and people learn - not blame - if things go wrong?

An obvious way to inspire people to become future leaders is to encourage existing ones. Colleges deserve a better press than they get, and the sector a higher profile.

Perhaps there will be a greater chance of achieving this than ever before, given that so many proven leaders are willing to collaborate. Together with the centre of excellence they could help to model this distinctive new ethos.

In this new era, the leadership centre has a critical role to play. Lynne, all power to your elbow.

Annette Zera was a principal for 18 years. Her forthcoming book, 'Getting On Brilliantly: Recipes for Good Meetings', will be published by Electric Word and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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