And none of them set out wanting to be in charge. Sue Jones examines the latest research
The first things a good leader needs are energy and an effective alarm clock. A typical college principal's day starts with checking emails at 7.30am, meeting senior managers at 8am, then off to talk to local school headteachers, back for a budget meeting by 10am, recruitment interviews in the afternoon and rounding off with a governors' meeting until 7.30.
Simon Kelly is constantly surprised at the hours college principals work.
He reels off these details as a typical day in the life of a principal for his own diary contribution to the website of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership at Lancaster University, where he is a researcher. While shadowing principals, he has discovered that much of their job is about meetings.
Not only must you understand the subject matter, you also need to judge the kind of process the meeting needs, says Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management, the trade union for principals and senior managers. Is it an informal chat with a senior manager to check the progress of a project? Or a formal governors' meeting with procedures laid down in law? Are you presenting the college to outside partners, thinking creative thoughts about the future with colleagues, or finalising agreement on a policy document?
Most of Dr Helen Gilchrist's meetings are with senior management at Bury College where she is principal. Such sessions cover many activities, from long-term strategy to task-group meetings focused on a short-term goal to coaching and mentoring. She also has staff meetings, and, twice a term, holds an open surgery at which staff can make an appointment to talk to her about their concerns.
Then there are induction sessions with new staff, student mentoring meetings, the student council and the informal encounters with staff and students around the college. And the external meetings with government bodies such as the local learning and skills council, or with other organisations such as the police and primary care trust which supervises local health services, through to the local learning partnership for public services, which she chairs.
Good communication is vital to running an organisation, says Dr Gilchrist.
"I like to walk the college. If someone has had a bereavement or a major illness, I like to know and send a card. I want to email or write or pick up the phone if something good happens. Communication is so important. You never get it right, but you've got to keep trying."
Then there's the mountains of information and paperwork. This is not just number crunching. When the future of any college depends on the "three Rs"
- recruitment, retention and results - it must have a convincing narrative about where it is and where it's going in the future. Read enough Ofsted and Adult Learning Inspectorate reports and you realise that college leaders stand or fall by their effectiveness at performance management. Dr Gilchrist used to call this dancing on a pinhead, but now she thinks it's more like "pirouetting on a microchip".
Simon Kelly and his colleagues Marian Iszatt White and Mark Rouncefield have studied some of the effects of the audit culture. Having to demonstrate value for money and good practice has put information management centre stage for college leaders. Mr Kelly's research team say that "Organisational life is increasingly characterised by a need to construct accounts and make oneself, other members of staff and the college accountable to a variety of internal and external audiences.
"The work of principals and senior managers when they engage in decision-making and analysis of management information involves a continuous (and often ingenious) struggle with the technology and the data.
In the process, information is not so much 'uncovered' or 'given' as continuously reconstructed." The research team's arguments are set out in a paper on the Lancaster University website* Knowing how to use data has forced college leaders to behave as though they are in business. Actions are justified by their effect on the bottom line.
This can lead to some tough decisions. Teachers and managers are challenged on the quality of their work, courses are closed, contracts changed, staff made redundant. Information may help to rationalise and clarify thinking, but leaders need resilience to live through the misery and opposition their decisions can cause.
So is it possible to spot leadership talent and develop it? What marks out the managers of the future?
Adrian Carey, chief executive of the hospitality training organisation HCTC, looks for people with strong personal motivation, keen to develop within an organisation. They need drive, energy, and commitment, someone who can make tough decisions and doesn't mind telling people what to do. He says such people are usually extroverts with good social skills who are open and honest.
Research for the Centre for Excellence shows that business acumen is increasingly an attribute of today's learning and skills sector leaders. In "Reflective Leadership"**, a paper on the centre's website, Julie Hollingsworth and Jane Hodgson interviewed 15 leaders of colleges and training organisations to discover other common characteristics.
Background is not one of them. Leaders come from all social and ethnic groups. Some had glittering academic careers; others left school with no qualifications. Some have spent their whole lives in education; others have run businesses or done everything from soldiering to a milk round.
But they all share a passion for education, often because it has transformed their lives or that of someone close to them. They have clarity of vision and the courage to see sometimes risky decisions through, often against adversity. But they are also self-aware, observant of the effects they have on others and willing to modify their behaviours.
None of them set out with the intention of becoming a leader. The journey usually starts when they take on a challenge confronting them, and often because someone has spotted talent in them a decided to take a risk.
Rae Angus, now principal of Aberdeen College, moved into management when the college's tower block structure developed cracks. Someone had to sort out the logistics of how to run a college without premises. After this challenge, promotion came rapidly. "I went from being a lecturer to being the senior deputy principal in 10 months," Mr Rae told CEL researchers.
Garrie Owens had done many jobs before he decided to return to learn on a business information technology course. By his second year he had been appointed to run the college's open access centre, and now he manages more than 40 learndirect centres.
He was inspired by a manager who focused on teamwork. "My personal philosophy is that there's always someone out there brighter and cleverer than you, but if you can find them and work with them, the whole organisation will go forward."
All agree on the importance of building teams and developing staff, through training and opportunities to progress within their own organisation.
Stella Dadzie, who runs her own consultancy, Frontline Training, thinks it important strategy to have regular appraisals that allow people to articulate their needs and aspirations as well as those of the organisation. Good use of management information helps leaders to see where groups are under-represented and may need targeted, top-up training, she says.
*www.comp.lancs.ac.ukcomputingresearchcseg projectsexplicatingExplicating_leadershipPapersstories.pdf**www.centrefo rexcellence.org.ukUsersDocReflective%20leadership.pdf
THE QUALITIES YOU NEED
* A passion for education
* Strong values and the ability to act as an inspiring role model
* Energy, drive and resilience in adversity
* Willingness to take risks and seize opportunities
* Clarity of vision
* A businesslike and customer-focused attitude
* The ability to listen and to create strong teams
* Eagerness to develop other's talent
* Commitment to your own personal development
* Self-awareness and willingness to adapt your behaviour From the Centre for Excellence in Leadership's 'Reflective Leadership' by Julie Hollingsworth and Jane Hodgson