Leadership is often characterised as a superior, controlling heroic act, where performance management of others is key. I don’t like that.
Reading Time in Minutes
- It’s only natural that individuals are controlling and power hungry, so we must fight it (and forgive it);
- ‘Deliverology’ is a busted flush;
- Leaders must respect workers as their equals;
- Leaders should serve not command.
About Richard Millwood
I am an educational designer, having made everything from apps to universities. I am now finding fulfilment with families in rural places all over Ireland, trying to encourage an interest in creative computing. The job is as a Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin tied to an SFI ‘Discover’ project to design and develop workshops which encourage parents to see computing as a fulfilling choice for their children’s future.
Contacting Richard Millwood
By Richard Millwood
I’ll never forget what the late and much missed Bianca Ni Ghrógáin said about rewards for the children in her primary classroom. She reported that the reward most sought-after was to be allowed to take the role of class teacher for 5 minutes. This opportunity to take power was valued more highly than any other childish delights on offer.
Perhaps this points to a natural desire to be in charge, for selfish reasons or perhaps to enjoy the delight of ‘zest’.
The selfishness can arise from a desire to be seen as important, to fulfil self-belief in one’s competence or to occupy a position of power over others to get things done right, as you see it.
‘Zest’, in John Heron’s language, is a delight which arouses “The emotions involved in the fulfilment of free choice and effective action” including “relish, gusto, exhilaration, achievement and work satisfaction.” Such delight is often only experienced in the playground, unlike the classroom, where activity is regulated, sometimes meaningless, not always completed, and choices are constrained to those the teacher offers.
The key elements here are the privileges of being in charge as a leader: ‘free choice’ of what is to be done and ‘effective action’ – the free choice converted into real world activity.
I first started using tag #leadershit at a conference in New Zealand, where the presenter earnestly spoke about three ships – leadership, relationship, partnership. I called them ‘the three shits’ in a moment of boredom, as the speaker sanctimoniously pronounced each syllable of the bullet points on slides. By the time they were explained, I had read them several times and readily digested them as terms that were virtuous, but individualistic in their outlook. This tendency to think about the individual is only natural in such talk, and to some extent reasonable, but so often falls short on analysis of a wider team seen as equals, rather than as troops to follow orders.
My curmudgeonly reaction to such well-meaning discussion arises from the failed leadership I had suffered so often in the varied work-places I have experienced, but particularly higher education. I am strongly influenced by the Cybernetic systems thinking I was exposed to a decade ago when working in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton. In that work we applied the ideas of feedback loop, variety, amplification and attenuation to try and understand how an educational institution operates, in order to invent improvements. Our particular interest was to find ways to allow undergraduates and masters students to nurture their ‘zest’ and support their ‘interest’ (another of Heron’s delights) in a work-focussed online degree programme. The challenge to leadership (of the course) is that every student may be studying topics unique to their context, job and workplace. You could say it was like a PhD for undergraduates. The feedback loop in particular, whether to drive learning or to improve teaching performance was strong.
At the same time, I was strongly aware of the leadership mantra of ‘deliverology’ the ideas developed by Barber for Blair back around 2000. The trouble was that instead of helping to focus, every aspect of performance became a priority, and “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”. The micro-management of every aspect of performance lead to much inauthentic labour and the situation was exacerbated by increasing oversight to the point of breakdown.
For example, in England, teacher education suffers this fate. At one point it had ‘quality assurance’ processes thrust on its long suffering lecturers from three directions: internal university quality assurance, the government’s higher education authority (HEA) and the government’s schools authority (OFSTED). Hardly any time to work, too busy explaining what targets the work might achieve…
The missing approach, distrusted by successive governments, was how to respect, nurture and trust professionalism in educators (and students) to achieve quality. This approach casts leadership in a service role, supporting and empowering professionals to do their job well. John Seddon explained how effective such an approach could be, when describing how a council repair worker could often be sent to do a job (to fix a tap), find that the problem belonged in another domain (electrician needed), and withdrew having wasted everyone’s time. This was transformed into a more effective operation by establishing a practice where the worker on encountering such a difficulty could call on management to send the right person or, if skilled, tackle it themselves, including the delivery of parts required.
How radical, to see your boss as someone who will help you fulfil the task!