Understanding the internal world of leadership

Understanding the internal world of leadership

19th September 2016

Twelve leaders from further education and skills have taken part in a wide-ranging and highly innovative project to investigate what systems theory and psychoanalysis can contribute to the leadership of thinking in the sector. The end of the project has been marked with a new report, collating discussions from nine thematic seminars, which demonstrates both the value of looking outside the sector for inspiration and support, and the huge positive impact the project has had on participants.

The project was part of FETL’s 2015 programme of grants and was led by specialists in organisational development, Working Well. Working Well delivered the nine one-day seminars, led by Project Director Gabriella Braun, and drafted a short, questioning think piece on the basis of each.

The project aimed to generate new thinking about the leadership of thinking in FE and skills and to develop knowledge and understanding of key psychoanalytic concepts and systems thinking and how these can be applied to leadership in the sector. Through the seminars and think pieces, FETL and Working Well hoped to create a group of informed participants capable of using their knowledge and increased capacity to influence the leadership of thinking and the development of the sector.

The themes of the seminars were:

  • Using systems theory in leadership
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s love got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s attachment got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s presence got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s compulsion got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s persecution got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s loss got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s aggression got to do with it?
  • Leadership of thinking: What’s Oedipus got to do with it?

The project had a significant and, in some respects, profound professional impact on participants. Major changes in their thinking were reported, particularly to their understanding of how their own ‘internal drivers and reactions’ impacted on them as leaders, as well as on their organisations. There was greater appreciation of and thinking about the complexity of leadership and of the relationships and interactions involved. One leader spoke of the ‘profound impact on my understanding of myself and the development of this into my leadership thinking and practice’. Some had made changes to their behaviour as a result of the project, while others had begun to share what they had learned with other senior leaders in their team. Most reported becoming more thoughtful, critical leaders, ‘better able to reflect on the wider dynamics of a situation’.

This, the report authors argue, is evidence of the impact new thinking can have on leadership:

[The participants’] engagement in the seminars and responses to the think pieces testify to the contribution that psychoanalytic and systems thinking can make to leadership of thinking in the sector. More importantly, they are introducing new thinking into their leadership and their organisations. We expect that they will also influence the sector in this regard more broadly where possible … While the project leads us to unreservedly advocate the use of psychoanalytic and systemic ideas in the leadership of thinking, this needs to be recognised a continuous process. It’s no quick fix; on the contrary it’s complex, hard work and tiring. We believe that the gains more than make up for the pain and effort … the risk of not being curious or paying attention to the impact our psychic lives can have on our actions, is great.

Ruth Silver, President of FETL and FETL steward at the project seminars, said:

Just as people can overlook wider systemic factors in their criticism of leaders, so leaders often neglect their own internal drivers, and those of others, and how their role within an organisation or broader system can mobilise them. Leaders, when all is said and done, are just people, subject to exactly the same hopes, desires, habits and emotional glitches. We need to recognise that healthy organisations need healthy leaders who are not only sensitive to the external systemic factors which shape their organisation but also mindful both of their own inner worlds and those of others. This is what this project sought to cultivate.

Of course, this is no simple matter. My hope is that the think pieces will serve as portals to further learning for other leaders. Leaders must not only find time in which to think, they must find time in which to think about their feelings and to talk about them with their peers. The loss of places in which FE and skills’ leaders can come together and share in this way has been acute and is something this project sought to address. It also aimed to give them a set of theoretical tools with which to understand feelings and how they play out in their work roles. The outcomes speak for themselves: a cohort of leaders with enhanced curiosity about the self-in-role, its relationships and wider systems, prepared to think critically and reflectively about their own leadership and what drives it.

Ayub Khan, Chief Executive of FETL, said:

This project was a perfect fit with FETL’s aim of promoting leadership of thinking in further education and skills. The think pieces are both engaging and useful. And there are already signs that leaders are using them to extend both their own learning and the learning of their leadership teams. FETL has stressed the importance of leaders looking ‘elsewhere and everywhere’ in developing their thinking and shaping their leadership. This project testifies to the potential value of such efforts. With colleges and independent training providers facing new and complex challenges and opportunities, we must be strategic and creative in growing with others a sector fit for the future.

The project report, How can psychoanalysis and systems theory contribute to the leadership of thinking in the further education and skills sector?, can be downloaded here. 

If you would like more information about the project or about FETL’s grants programme, visit … or contact our Chief Executive, Ayub Khan: ayubkhan@fetl.org.uk.

One thought on “Understanding the internal world of leadership”

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