Colleges should stop looking for "heroic, inspirational" principals and instead develop systems in which anybody can become a leader, according to an international expert.
American academic James Krantz, who specialises in leadership and organisational change, said the FE sector had become "caught up" in its reliance on charismatic figureheads, an approach that was "dysfunctional" in the modern world.
Dr Krantz, who has taught at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, gave the inaugural lecture of the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) in London this week.
The founder of the consultancy WorkLab said the UK FE sector, as with US community colleges, had a crucial role to play in economic improvement. But both groups needed to change their ideas about leadership in order to become less reliant on inspirational leaders at the top, he told TES.
"Rather than hoping for godlike, heroic leaders, who will see the way forward and through their skilful, entrepreneurial strategies pull our institutions forward, the institutions that thrive will find ways to foster leadership at all levels," he said. "Part of the new challenge of leaders in high positions is about fostering systems that produce leadership."
Dr Krantz said that instead of relying on "charismatic, inspirational" principals, 21st-century FE colleges should establish distributed leadership systems.
"It's not just FE but society that has been caught up in a reliance on the inspirational leader," he argued. "That's dysfunctional given today's world. We need systems that aren't set up to fail if you don't have an inspirational leader.
"You can see examples where colleges have gone out to get a charismatic leader but when they turned up they were not so good."
Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College and president of the Association of Colleges, said he "totally agreed" with Dr Krantz's position.
"It's all about developing distributed leadership and accountability," Mr Atkins added. "For larger colleges in particular, to empower people, invest in leadership development and hold people accountable is the way forward, not heroic leadership and micromanagement from the top."
Mr Atkins said his college had invested heavily in leadership development over the past decade, creating leaders at different levels of the organisation to take on more responsibility.
He added that there was still a place for inspirational leadership, particularly to turn around failing colleges. "But if you want to move from good to outstanding you have got to have distributive leadership," he argued. "What do you do if your heroic leader leaves? The whole thing risks falling down like a pack of cards."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that although distributed leadership was the ideal model, there was still a place for inspiring individuals to lead educational organisations.
"Especially in colleges, which can be vast organisations, you certainly need a strong person at the top who sets out a clear vision," he said. "But it is no good working in isolation; they will fail without a strong team around them. Each part of the organisation needs to be extremely well led by able people."
FETL is an independent thinktank set up last year to strengthen leadership within the FE sector. Its remit is to carry on the work of the scrapped Learning and Skills Improvement Service, using pound;5.5 million of the service's leftover budget.
The thinktank's president Dame Ruth Silver, who was principal of Lewisham College for 17 years, told TES that a good leader was in tune with the "heartbeat" of their organisation and knew what changes were necessary.
"Sometimes leadership needs to be distributed; sometimes it needs to be held by an individual," she said. "For me, leadership is about congruence - not heroic, not distributed, but congruent with the values of the organisation and the task at hand."
`Inspirational leadership is needed'
Ros Morpeth, chief executive of the National Extension College (NEC), was named leader of the year at the 2014 TES FE Awards. She was described as a "miracle worker" by the judges after coming out of retirement to rescue the NEC from administration.
Dr Morpeth, pictured, "disagrees completely" with Dr Krantz's point of view.
"I think inspirational leadership is needed because the funding and quality systems [in the sector] are changing so much and organisations have to respond quickly and often without having time to think," she says. "Without a strong leader, it is very hard for organisations to cope with that.
"If you are embarking on something new, like building projects or mergers, the devolved style doesn't have credibility. Most large organisations do have distributed leadership; the danger is, if you take it too literally, nobody takes responsibility. There has to be ultimate accountability.
"And you need someone staff and students can relate to and identify with, not just in times of change."