Voices of the shamed: The personal toll of shame and shaming in further education

Commissioned by the Chartered Institution for Further Education

This is the second of two papers on shame and shaming published by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) in 2020. The first, published in May 2020, focused on shame in organisational life. This second, complementary Monograph considers shame from the perspective of individuals, and focuses in particular on how shame is produced and dealt with in struggling organisations, and the impact this has on ‘shamed’ leaders.

The focus is on further education, and further education leadership, in particular. The context in which sector leaders operate is important. The culture of constant reform, the combination of extreme financial constraint and high expectations, and our overbearing, sometimes unfair, system of accountability, all contribute to making FE leadership a high-stakes affair in which judgement is quick (and not always well-informed) and failure harshly and very publicly dealt with.

What emerges from these interviews with ‘shamed’ leaders is the huge personal and professional toll these sudden, and often very public, expulsions from leadership roles can take. It is also very evident that the harsh judgement visited upon professionals in the sector is unduly focused on faults in the individual, and pays far too little attention to the organisational and systemic pressures which drive their actions, notably the fast-changing nature of sector priorities which can result in a leader being vilified for taking a position previously in line with the expectations of their board of governors and the regulators.

This, and our previous report, should be read together. While the first provides a conceptual framework for thinking about shame and its role in organisational life, this report takes us deeper into the experiences of the shamed. It is the first time, to my knowledge, that a publication has given voice to these leaders, who often departed their roles, and in many cases the sector, feeling their side of the story had not been heard. As is evident from their testimony, the sense of loss and the damage done cast a long shadow, both personally and professionally.