I got a new qualification back in May. I’m usually very proud of getting new qualifications, including my PGCert in Academic Practice, which most people treat as a burden. I didn’t tweet or brag about this one though because it was a leadership qualification. I am now an accredited leader to level 5 of the Institute of Learning and Management leadership framework. I was ashamed of this qualification because of one of the key learning points from the course for me – that when we think of “leaders” in English, we think of, well ultimately:
A man. Shouting. Bullying people to do what he wants them to do. And ultimately what he wants people to do is wrong.
I ended up doing the course because after I was promoted to Senior Lecturer last year I ended up leading a couple of key pieces of work in the University – leading a research programme, and leading an Athena SWAN application. I realised in October 2016 that I was writing about how good the Aurora leadership programme was for women and thought I need something like that. Fortunately for me, a space had come up on the University’s ILM5 course that was starting the following week. Luckily I could make all the sessions over the six months. I realised quite how much I needed it when I was walking through Waverley Station the day after I'd said to HR I would do it and I burst into tears realising that I'd said "I can't do this anymore and need some help."
Because of my preconceptions about leadership, I went in very skeptically and determined to have a feminist approach to my learning. Chatting to colleagues, they suggested speaking to Frances Patterson who leads our social work leadership courses. She put me onto shared leadership theory that is heavily informed by feminism, and particularly the work of Joyce Fletcher on post-heroic leadership.
A lot of contemporary leadership theory is based on neuroscience, and I have to confess, I remain unconvinced of that. I’m just too focused on understanding sociologically to accept psychological evidence for human behaviour.
Engaging with the literature and realising that the way I operate in organisations is good leadership that is empirically demonstrated to lead to better performance was really eye-opening and empowering. As I say, I think the word “leadership” in English is too corrupted now. If we were into compounds nouns in English, like the Germans, I’d say empoweringcaringsharingrolemodelperson would be a much better word.
As part of the course I got some leadership coaching sessions with Michele Armstrong. I had my last session this morning and it gave me time to reflect on my “leadership journey”. A big part of my leadership reflection was getting to my core values – what makes me tick. These are helping the most vulnerable in society and delivering equality. Another key value for me is competence, and getting the job done and delivering change.
One key reflection, that I need to discuss with others, is how I come across on this. Although these are my values, and I would say they are progressive, I don’t immediately leap to activism, resistance and complaint to go about delivering them. I like to go with the grain and use bureaucracy for positive ends. Also, in a HE context, a lot of the things that are the focus of ire – audit and “administration” – because they are “Neil Librul”, I actually think are not all bad. Following Clive Barnett, I always look for the shades of grey in our friend Neil. He’s not a totalising force. A lot of his tools – like audit, or performance measures – can be used to progressive ends. I feel more comfortable in this space and doing this work, and I think I need to talk about it a bit more as I'm worried I come across as a management stooge.
I keep my “resistance” quieter. For me, it means using the inefficiency of bureaucracy to thwart its own ends – no one will notice if I don’t fill in that spreadsheet I’ve been asked to complete. I’ll conveniently forget to forward on requests to protect colleagues from something either I could do, or I think is ill-advised and needs to be rethought. In working with colleagues, I’ll focus on how exciting their ideas are and encourage them to take them further, rather than bash them over the head with targets. If you meet the targets it’s a bonus, but your job should be enjoyable, empowering and intellectual stimulating. The chances are, if you are doing that sort of job then your “customers” (students) will be happy and getting good learning (and a Gold TEF award) and you’ll be doing the sort of research that will tick the REF boxes.
I suppose a key frustration of mine though is that on these leadership and coaching courses I go on, everyone has been like me - already a very good leader, who just needs to space to reflect and some theory and practical ideas to hone their skills. That we have said to ourselves that we need to develop these skills, to me, says that we are good leaders. Those who think they are good leaders, who practice heroic leadership, aren't reflexive enough to attend such courses and yet they quite often are in leadership positions.