FE managements should distinguish between a "boss" mentality and a "leader" approach, John Burt, principal of Angus College, told the conference.
Mr Burt, whose college is rated financially "stable" by the FE funding council, has been seconded to head a new FE directorate to help turn around struggling colleges.
He defined a boss as someone who "drives, scares, is rigid and covert, inspires fear, says 'I', says 'Go', and takes the praise."
A leader, by contrast, "coaches, persuades, is flexible and open, inspires enthusiasm, says 'We', says 'Let's Go', and passes the pride."
Managements should have core values based on the desire of staff to be involved and kept informed, understood and treated respectfully, and engaged in collaborative work across the college.
But Mr Burt also warned that the financial climate in which colleges might be expected to strive for these ideals would be "exceptionally difficult" in 2003-04 and "difficult" in the following year, with no potential for growth before 2005-06.