Is charisma all we need?

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Learn from history or you are doomed to repeat it, we are told. As we contemplate the arrival of a new chief executive at the Learning and Skills Council and look forward to a different era of leadership, I thought it might be helpful to dip into my own stock of historical anecdotes to see what we can learn from our ancestors.

Modern history lessons, of course, are strong on empathy and short on facts and mine is no different. Let me take you back to the early morning hours of St Crispin's Day 1415, just outside Agincourt.

The French summer has been hot and long, and you welcome the cold October air on the open hillside where you lie encamped with the bruised remnants of the English army. To a man you are exhausted from long marches and fierce fighting.

What faces you in the next few hours, however, stops you slipping into much-needed sleep. Across the field, just outside the wood about a mile away, the French army waits for first light. They outnumber you four to one and are determined to throw you out of their country. They are fresh and spoiling for a taste of English blood.

The sturdy yeoman next to you is awake. "Looks like we'll cop it tomorrow," he says, rolling himself another fag (look, this is my anecdote; the anachronisms are just symbolic, OK? And did you really expect Chaucerian vernacular?) "I don't think so," you reply, smugly. "Our leader is better than theirs."

"What, Henry? You must be joking. Henry IV was alright, especially part 2, but this geezer's hopeless. He doesn't know his crossbow from his pikestaff and couldn't find his way to Calais with satellite navigation. This is his first battle."

A first little worm of doubt slips into your mind. "But I've seen his speech - the one he's going to deliver pre-battle this morning. They let us have an advance draft last night so we could work out what it meant. It's fantastic: 'we few, we happy few, we band of brothers', and all that. You wouldn't have got that from the previous Henry."

"It's all spin, mate. Somebody writes it, Henry delivers it. For you its 'once more into t`he breach', for him it's the beer tent for a pie and a swift half. He's never held a sword in his life and fell off the only horse he ever tried to mount."

"Just as well we've got the archers, then. They'll wave two fingers at the French."

"Don't count on them, mate," our glum yeoman sneers. "They've had Offbow on their backs for weeks. Told 'em they couldn't hit a target at two paces and started benchmarking 'em with that Robin Hood. So half of 'em are self-assessing and the other half are writing action plans.

"Anyway, watch out, here comes Henry now, doing his management-by-walkabout bit. Oh look, he's got his breastplate on upside down!"

The rest, of course, is history. Outnumbered four to one, the English got lucky. The French, in heavy armour, fell in a sea of mud and couldn't get up. Henry claimed the rout was due to his inspired leadership; he promptly lost all remaining encounters and was thrown out of France a few weeks later.

Does this example of charisma without experience have any current relevance? The new man in charge of the LSC has a successful track record in high-powered posts, but apparently no experience of FE or even the public sector.

Does this matter? Perhaps not. College principals and many senior managers have recently had to undergo training in aspects of leadership. The central point of the training was that leaders were interchangeable. If they had charm, could motivate and communicate, could sell a vision and be genuinely interested in individuals, they could lead any organisation.

The chief executive of a major automobile company might have spent his life selling crisps. College principals could have been abattoir managers so long as they brought the right attributes to the new job.

A track record of relevant success became excess baggage in our tutors'

eyes. Sector experience could be an encumbrance, they opined. The new management Jerusalem welcomed leaders who hadn't the foggiest idea what they were doing and leading.

Tell that to the team that's three nil down at half-time and gets a tactics talk from a celebrity chef, we thought. The LSC has put its money where its training mouth was and bravely chosen a leader with charisma over proven FE worth. Once more into the breach, colleagues.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today