No more superheroes

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Heroic leaders are history. Today's colleges need people with vision - who can communicate it. Neil Merrick explains

Mike Syms, principal of Portland College in Nottinghamshire and former deputy chief of staff at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, knows a thing or two about being in charge and being one of the troops.

"There are no such things as poor or bad soldiers," he says. "There are only bad leaders."

It is 10 years since Syms left the armed services to become principal of Portland, a residential college for students with profound and multiple physical disabilities. Although the military may have produced more than its share of heroic leaders in the past, this approach has been firmly rejected in favour of inspirational leadership that stimulates other people to take decisions.

"The heroic approach is all about going over the top with fixed bayonets,"

says Syms. "That does not cut any ice now. An inspirational leader does not need to be heroic."

Principals, he adds, must be willing to lead from the front but should also be clear about their colleges' aims and objectives so that others will also shoulder responsibility. "Leadership is not something that's done to you.

It's something that's done with you."

Gene Horan, who runs the leadership research centre at Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire, believes that colleges require visionary leadership - not heroism. "Heroic leadership is when people rise to the occasion but it doesn't drive results," he says.

No two people will ever agree on exactly what constitutes heroic or inspirational leadership. Some colleges have, on the face of it, been revitalised by a new principal coming in and stamping their personality on the organisation.

But Horan, who is also business development director at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, says it is a recipe for disaster for one person to attempt to do everything alone.

"As soon as you become a heroic leader, your shelf life is quite short."

Seven years ago, Great Yarmouth College swept aside its hierarchical management structure and replaced it with a team system. All staff belong to a team and each of the college's 20 team leaders are expected to attend a board-level planning meeting each term. According to the vice-principal, Daphne King, the new team structure allows teachers and other staff to exercise inspirational leadership at all levels. "We encourage situational leadership," she says. "People need to be able to take decisions and risks but there is a clear framework in which decisions are made."

Although the average age of team leaders is already falling, the college is looking ahead and grooming its next generation of leaders. "Charismatic leadership is all right if it considers the ability of others," says King.

"The problem with heroic leadership is that it may get in the way of other people developing."

Not everyone is against heroic leaders on principle. Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury College, Portsmouth, points out that many of education's real heroes are relatively ordinary people. "At some point they have stopped and said 'I will make a difference' and then moved single-mindedly towards that without believing they were born to be leaders."

Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College, believes true leadership consists of empowering teams of individuals. As a principal, one of the greatest challenges he faces is knowing when to delegate and when to do something himself. "You don't want leadership to slip so far away that you're open to the charge that you don't know what's going on, but you want to encourage other leaders and recognise talent," he says.

Famous politicians such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, who were regarded by many as inspirational, created such an aura around them that colleagues were often afraid to work with them and, ultimately, nobody was in a position to step into their shoes.

"Politicians tend to be quite disappointing leaders," says Gene Horan.

"Very few of them are sustainable leaders, even though they are extremely powerful."

Sue Crowley, director of quality improvement at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, agrees that authority should be shared throughout an organisation but dislikes the term "inspirational leader". Instead, she argues, it is important to understand why people follow certain leaders and not others.

The pace of change in the 21st century makes it vital that people work collaboratively so that the nature of leadership reflects the needs of a particular organisation. "You have to be comfortable with who you are as a leader so that you can give leadership away without it compromising your position," says Crowley.

'Bosses should be invisible'

When Warwickshire College gained a grade 1 for leadership and management two years ago, staff faced the tricky decision of what to do next. Instead of resting on their laurels, the senior management team agreed that the next challenge was to go from being good to being great.

Ioan Morgan, who has been principal for eight years, believes he has many leadership styles, including the ability to exercise overt leadership when he has to sell an idea - including that of change - to other people.

But the inspection grade showed that Warwickshire is a mature organisation where staff are already well motivated. "The leadership required is quite sophisticated," he says. "You move from using overt leadership to being part of a team."

He warns against charismatic leadership, built around an individual.

"People are afraid to wave a red flag. They won't tell you any bad news,"

he says. "Some colleges have suffered because leaders were too egotistical.


Morgan sees inspirational leadership as "making things happen" and transforming situations so that change is sustainable. He points to Warwickshire's achievements in enrolling more than 1,000 14 to16- year-olds and working more effectively with employers as examples of it building on its success since the inspection in 2003.

This depended on staff fully understanding the core values of the college and putting them into practice, he says. "There is still an important role for being a visible leader of change and getting your message across to other people," he adds. "At the beginning of an idea you have to be more overt, and then you can back off."

In Lancashire, Richard Hooper, is manager of the county's adult and community learning service. He says the best leaders are invisible but still make sure their organisation is run successfully.

"Leadership is not about doing things, but about ensuring that things get done," he says. "That means recruiting the best people for what they do, ensuring they are resourced effectively and have a clear vision but also relate to the day-to-day operation."

Since 2001, adult education has been funded by the Learning and Skills Council rather than local authorities. This has placed Lancashire's adult service in a similar position to that of a FE college but facing the extra challenge of running courses in 800 locations across the county, including libraries, community centres and schools.

Lancashire employs three principals who are each responsible for a geographical zone, as well as cross-county strategic issues. According to Mr Hooper, managers must be able to delegate effectively as well as demonstrate flexibility.

"Leadership roles come and go on a daily basis," he explains. "Leadership should be visible when things get tough but invisible when success is achieved."

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