Machismo or love? Mark Ravenhall

Machismo or love? Mark Ravenhall

07th November 2014

Earlier today I saw a tweet that fascinated me. It asked: Why is so-called 'strong leadership' often interpreted by senior managers as needing to impose a macho-fuelled model of management on others?

At first it sounded like a cri-de-coeur—a tweet-de-coeur perhaps—but then I saw it was posted by a respected academic. So I tweeted back: Discuss.

I wasn’t being entirely flippant. I thought it sounded like a good subject for an undergraduate essay—Business and Management 101. The Enclosure Act (1801) provided the necessary conditions for economic growth. Discuss. That sort of thing.

But there was a serious point too. These subjects do need discussing, properly, rigorously—and probably with a good literature review thrown in.

A quick scan of my bookshelf seems to suggest that macho-management styles just don’t work. From Tom Peters saying ‘the trouble with staff is not that don’t listen, but that they do.’ (Thriving on Chaos.) Or Daniel Goleman on ‘men: the vulnerable sex’ (Emotional Leadership.) Or all the work by Robert K. Greenleaf on servant-leadership and the importance of humility in great leaders.

A few years ago, just before the financial crisis and the ratcheting up of student loans in England, I heard a business leader address a group of university vice-chancellors. He advised them that one of the critical attributes of leaders was humility. It was a lead balloon moment.

In FE and skills, there are some encouraging signs. The excellent films the Education and Training Foundation have made as part of its Leadership Conversation are one example. In these short pieces, successful leaders talk about their approach to leadership. Not much macho behaviour there. In fact they talk about the importance of teamwork, sharing credit, and humility not just because it is the right thing to do—but because it gets results.

I also enjoyed July’s thinkpiece from the 157 group of colleges and the National Council for Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education, Talking to leaders about spiritual leadership. Although this short publication ostensibly focused on one aspect of leading a college, it clearly has messages of wider import: accountability, holistic education, and how senior leaders’ own values translate into the sort of institutions they lead.

And this is at the heart of it, I think. If leading in FE and skills is about better outcomes for learners, then it is about leading learning. If learning is what I think it is: a transformative experience that changes people for the better from the inside, then it is essentially a moral activity. It doesn’t matter if the focus of that education is vocational or not, or whether it happens in the workplace, a college, or a community centre. It is all about learning. And that means it is important who leaders are as well as what they do.

I have met many successful FE leaders of learning over the years and the distinguishing characteristic is that they are admirable people as well as educators.

You may not agree of course. Your experience may be different. It will be interesting to see if anyone proposes something—research, a thinkpiece, a seminar—on this subject when FETL’s Grants programme is launched next week. Then perhaps we will see if leadership in our sector is ‘macho’, or as Tom Peters says ‘all about love’:

Leadership is all about love:  Passion, Enthusiasms, Appetite for Life, Engagement, Great Causes & Determination to Make a Damn Difference, Commitment to Excellence, Shared Adventures, Bizarre Failures, Growth Beyond Measure, Insatiable Appetite for Change. (Tom Peters.)


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