Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Learning to Lead

This is the first of a series of inter-connected posts about my experience of leadership.

Most people know from experience how critical leadership is in any organisation and I have already identified this as a significant factor in my own career.   My own leadership learning came partly from observing and experiencing others (good and bad role models), partly from coaching, a little from training programmes but most of all from experience, especially supported experiences.  I also had the huge privilege in recent years to work for the National College for School Leadership where I was able to refine my own thinking and at the same time practice leadership, working alongside some of the very best education leaders in the country and some of the foremost researchers and thinkers about leadership.
Leadership takes place in many contexts (sports, organisations, political parties and informal groups) and operates at many different levels (for example, in education we know that a teacher is a leader of learning in every lesson).   As I have reflected on my own leadership journey I have ended up writing a series of inter-linked posts.   In the first of these I reflect on my personal experiences and my own early development as a leader up to the point where I became a Director of Education.  In the second I will reflect on the ups and downs of leading major organisations and then, thirdly, my most recent work as a leadership consultant, supporting leaders and working for a leadership organisation.  Finally, I will try to summarise some of what I think I have learnt about leadership and about how to grow and develop leadership in others.

As a child and a student I would never have regarded myself as being a leader.  My best friend for the first 15 or so years of life, Pete, was the ‘leader’ among our group of friends.  At secondary school (a secondary modern which effectively became a comprehensive during my time there) I was a fairly nondescript, low key student – although I did start to show some academic promise in the sixth form.  I enjoyed sport but was never particularly good and certainly never a team leader.  Being an undergraduate at university was really important for my social and academic development and I certainly grew in confidence but I didn’t join much or put myself forward to lead anything significant.

It was probably my early days as a teacher where something happened that, looking back, started my leadership journey.  In my second year an inspirational headteacher spotted me as someone with something to offer and encouraged me to go on a course about ‘citizenship’ education and subsequently to lead a staff meeting about it. From that I began to establish myself as a voice for change within the school.   Then I left teaching for a while and went off to Nuffield College, Oxford to do a PhD.  I was never entirely happy or comfortable at Oxford - I was a more mature student who had experienced a bit of working life and I had done my first degree and masters at Essex, culturally a very different, modern university without the status or pretensions of Oxford.  Perhaps because of this I wanted to ‘prove myself’ and I ended up playing a leading role among the students at Nuffield and found myself negotiating directly with the College leadership about charges and conditions for students – something, I came to realise, at which I was pretty good.  I also captained the College cricket team -  although that is not as grand as it sounds as it was a small post graduate College and we struggled to get 11 players to turn out some weeks!

Back in teaching and having moved to Yorkshire, my journey continued as I experienced ‘shared leadership’ of a department and then head of department in 2 schools.  I also became active in politics and the union (NUT) which gave me new opportunities to influence things, represent others and refine my own views. 
This is the point (described in my previous post) when I became a Humanities adviser in Kirklees.  I was given considerable freedom to develop the role and to take responsibility for new initiatives.  I played a key role in setting up and running a new national association for humanities advisers, my first taste of operating at a national level and doing something new which challenged the conventional structures.  It was at about this time when I vividly remember my boss, Geoff, saying,  ‘Mark, I think you could lead this team one day’. I had honestly never thought about this until that moment and yet within about 18 months I was heading up the curriculum support service.  

As head of service I had a wonderful Director as my boss. Jennifer was one of, at that time, a rare number of women directors of education (most of whom, including Jennifer, experienced  serious challenges, operating in a hitherto largely male and often sexist world of directors and politicians).  She gave me tremendous personal encouragement and support which I recall as a wonderful mix of giving me lots of freedom to get on and do, with regular opportunities to check things out with her and knowing she was always there if I needed specific help and advice.  

What I also remember about this period was the first time a training course had an impact on me.  It was in-house, introduced by the then Chief Executive (widely recognised as one of a new breed of innovative, entrepreneurial CEs in Local Government). It was about cultural change in organisations, it was very participative, lasted from memory one session each week for about 6 weeks and I loved it.  I could reflect on each session and try out things in context and throughout my career I have used ideas and practice I was first introduced to on that programme (eg. the importance of vision, ownership and co-construction, listening and questioning before talking..).  In particular, I have regularly used a quote from Goethe, written in about 1800 and used on the course - ‘whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it…boldness has genius, power and magic in it, begin it now.’  Only writing this now do I realise just how significant that may have been for me – I have done a few bold (and some would say foolish) things in my career and most have turned out well! 

In Leeds I probably learnt more about how not to do things than how to do them.  I also learnt about realpolitik and real Politics – how to get things done, managing up as well as down, knowing where the power lies in an organisation, the cut and thrust of local Party politics, the art of the possible, being prepared to compromise in order to get something important to happen.  My boss, John, understood the politics well and helped and protected me.  I vividly remember one conversation with him.  I said I thought I needed to develop a thicker skin and he said, ‘no, a thick skin implies things bounce off and nothing gets through, you need to stay firm on what really matters but absorb some of what is coming at you and learn from it so you can adapt your tactics in order to achieve those things.’  Much later I put a name to this as a key leadership skill – resilience.

I will mention one other course or programme that was significant for me.  It was run by a wonderful organisation called ‘Common Purpose’.  It brought together people from the public, private and voluntary sectors in an area (in this case Leeds).  It opened my eyes to some of the amazing skills on offer from people in the other sectors and challenged my prejudices about the values and motivations, particularly of those from the private sector.  It almost certainly influenced some of my future decisions including working for 2 large private companies later in my career (more in a future post).

It was at this point, still in my early 40s, that I became a Director of Education in Blackburn with Darwen.  In the second part of this post I will reflect on my time as a Director of Education and then as a Managing Director and Chief Executive in the private sector.

Meanwhile I would be interested in other people’s reflections on what has influenced your leadership journeys and/or what you have observed in others.

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