The individual has typically been central to considerations of leadership. But from Victorian times, notably through Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the “great man”, the emphasis has been on individual leaders and their capabilities. Although subsequent attempts to formalise our understanding of leadership by listing a series of traits that might be needed proved difficult and largely ineffective, the emphasis on individual leaders remained.
Yet successful leadership is broadly based on interactions: leaders need to understand the organisation, but also work with groups within the college (typically groups of workers). Increasingly, wider society seems to value treating individuals and groups equally. But if leadership is to be both effective and fair, we need to recognise that individual workers are different: they have different characters, they have different demands placed on them outside of work, and they certainly bring different attitudes and talents to the workplace.
In effect, we still need to make sure that there is an emphasis on individuals, but this should apply to all employees, and not merely leaders.
This has been recognised for some time in the arguments for situational leadership, popularised in the book The One Minute Manager. For leadership to be more effective, it should vary according to circumstance rather than being fixed. Appreciating the differences between workers can provide a basis for advancing the maturity of workers through aiding their development, and so advancing the organisation as a whole.
Value skills and attitudes
In many ways, good college leadership displays some recognition of differences. Leaders do not treat all members of staff identically – for example, it is nonsense to test the teaching skills of those who have no teaching responsibilities.
Senior managers may have relevant and sound skills. But even this does not indicate that they should be treated equally.
Those who have been with the college for a number of years are likely to have a solid understanding of the values and expectations deemed important within the institution and so may be given greater latitude. Yet a new member of the executive may be less familiar with some traditions and, however capable they may be, they may stand to benefit from additional awareness of – and even training for – these goals.
Valuing skills and attitudes that employees already possess does not merely relate to those in senior management, and neither should the opportunity to engage in college-specific induction.
There will be colleagues who have great enthusiasm and commitment to the college, and the status of individuals does not limit the potential that they may have for advancing the evolving ethos. Remember, though, they may need support in advising others.
Support from senior managers to middle managers provides the basis for cascading support through the management structure to assist the broader development of junior staff.
Leaders, whether at middle-management or senior levels, benefit from specific support if they meet colleagues with different (even opposing) views.
A sound leadership response would not be to dismiss alternatives, but to examine any potential they may have. It is even possible that there may be better ways of doing things.
These evolutionary stages in leadership within any organisation may be advanced by principals and senior managers, but for them to be fully effective, wider recognition proves helpful.
Teams of lecturers may have a leader, yes, but that leader may need encouragement, not only to appreciate and advance the skills of colleagues but also to secure goals prized by the college.
Graham Fowler is an educational consultant, researcher and writer