We need to talk
The purpose of FETL is to get people talking, not do it for them, writes Dame Ruth Silver
The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) does not aim to offer the final word on any particular question but seeks, rather, to engender conversations, bringing new ideas to old themes – and vice versa – and creating spaces in which people from different backgrounds and with different opinions can meet, learn and think together. This is important as, increasingly, our thinking, as a society, seems riven with fault lines that people are uncomfortable crossing. Yet, unless we are prepared to be open and inclusive in our thinking and talk to those with whom we disagree, positive long-term change is likely to prove elusive.
This is something I addressed in FETL’s recent webinar. It is part of our mission to bring to the attention of the sector, the system and ecosystem matters from wider society that pertain our territory and to our learning as leaders in education. That is why, for example, we chose to focus on whistleblowing in our 2018 lecture. The issue is of crucial topical importance, across a range of industries, professions and sectors, but engaging with it demanded a conscious effort on behalf of our colleagues to think hard about awkward and unfamiliar issues. In the event, the lecture proved hugely stimulating and the debate that followed it demonstrated the value of bringing disparate worlds together.
It strikes me that this is extremely significant, given the highly polarised nature of national debate on key issues, exacerbated, of course, by Brexit but already plainly visible before it. This is further amplified by social media, which has a pronounced tendency to reinforce prejudices rather than challenging them and to sharpen antipathies between different sides of an issue. The result of this is to distort the way in which we think about difficult issues, to make the complex appear simple and to erode trust and solidarity. Whichever side we are on, we all lose when we stop talking to each other.
As leaders, we need to resist this and to find ways to create common spaces in which to think, plan, debate and have ideas. This is true at a societal level, where lasting political change depends some degree of consensus, and at an organisational level, where leaders must create cultures in which staff have thinking space and are prepared and encouraged to share their ideas and contribute to the leadership of their organisation. In colleges and other learning providers, this is particularly important. It goes to the heart of our mission as ethical organisations.
This is not to say that it is easy. When leaders start a conversation, when they acknowledge other people’s expertise and the pertinence of their ideas, they make themselves vulnerable. Not every leader will be prepared to do this, but the challenge of creating shared understandings of what we want for our institutions, communities, regions and country demands it. One of the points that I made at FETL’s lecture on whistleblowing was that leaders must not hide behind process, important though that is, and use that as an excuse not to create a culture in which people’s concerns are carefully listened to. Leaders must be prepared to be both listeners and learners.
Communication is critical, especially if we are to find common ground and a shared sense of purpose in a crowded and sometimes confused policy world. Moreover, if we are to respond to the new challenges of our fast-changing world, we must also be prepared to take on new ideas and learn from others – in the wisdom of Gregory Bateson, it is ‘difference that makes a difference’; sameness gives you more of the same. We cannot walk into the future armed only with the tools and resources that were useful yesterday. This is why FETL is committed to making all the resources it creates freely available and to disseminating them as widely as we can. We do not see any of the things we produce as the final word. Our aim is to start conversations and to sustain them. We want the folks who read our blogs and publications and watch our webinars and other electronic resources to make use of them, to take them into their own organisations, into board meetings and into common rooms, to discuss them and to take them further. When we are lucky, they feed what they learn back to us. In our recent webinar, I restated that everything we do is there to be shared and spread. We do not pretend to have the answers, but we believe that we will only get better answers by talking, with each other, with people we do not know and with people who we don’t yet understand or with whom we disagree.
Dame Ruth Silver is President of FETL