From education to employment

Don’t underestimate the vital role of true leadership

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO, City & Guilds

Two week’s ago, headlines were dominated by events at Number 10 after Boris Johnson announced his resignation as Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson’s tenure as leader has certainly been memorable, not always for best reasons. Although for our sector, he has as Prime Minister at least placed a revived emphasis on skills and technical education, ranging from announcing a further review of the apprenticeship system, the proposed introduction of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, and ensuring employers took a more active role in shaping the skills system through the passing of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act.

Unfortunately however, in recent months, too much attention has shifted away from the policy agenda the PM was seeking to change, to widespread claims regarding his own leadership and personal conduct in office.

Boris Johnson’s legacy as Prime Minister may well demonstrate the impact that a failure of the critical aspects of leadership at the top can have on the rest of an organisation and in the case of a PM, the tone this then sets right through the culture and leadership of others across the country. While his case is a particularly high profile example, there are important lessons to be learned for all kinds of organisations about the importance of maintaining values, integrity and ethics among all leaders.

Feeling let down by Leaders

Our own research has revealed that the government is not alone when it comes to people feeling let down by their leaders during the pandemic. In a City & Guilds report published in 2020 called Leading Through Challenging Times, we found that three quarters of professionals felt that leadership was lacking within their organisations during Covid-19. So at a time when leaders were most needed to stand up and take their organisations through some of the worst of times, they were found wanting. 

Our research found that 31% of employees felt that their leaders showed a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence, 34% felt leaders lacked problem solving skills and 36% said that they did not feel empowered and motivated. Is it any wonder we are struggling as a country to re-build out of the pandemic, if we don’t have the best of leaders, leading authentically and with empathy, integrity and with the followship leader skills we should expect from our PM all the way down?  

We know that trust in senior leaders is also important to the effective functioning of an organisation, and the “Dimensions of Trust” – detailed in our own Index of Leadership Trust framework – identified consistency, integrity, openness, ability, understanding, fairness and accessibility as essential.

When these qualities are not demonstrated by leaders it can lead to a breakdown in trust amongst all of a business’s most important stakeholders – from customers though to employees – or in the Prime Minister’s case, the public and his fellow party members.

Whoever succeeds in replacing Boris Johnson as Prime Minister will need to work at rebuilding public confidence in the government, and they may have a challenging path ahead of them in many respects. Our Leading Through Challenging Times report revealed that public confidence in the government’s efforts to support training and upskilling was very limited – 34% felt that it would have no impact at all, and 16% felt that government policies would actually have a negative impact on training and upskilling.

There is perhaps too often an assumption that leadership ability is inherent or something which is acquired automatically when people enter a more senior role, almost as if it’s the right that comes with the title. Of course, it’s not – leadership doesn’t follow hierarchy or status. Leadership – like trust has to be “earnt” and trust takes a long time to build and a moment to lose! Leadership is a muscle we continually have to nurture and hone and as leaders, regardless of our title, have the humility to recognise we are continually learning despite being leaders.

The state of the sector

For the wider skills sector, the change in leadership at the top could represent a risk, or an opportunity. This all now depends on the approach taken by a new leader to the revitalising and overhauling of the sector. What is certain, however, is that there will inevitably be further delays and changes to skills policy at a time when stability is needed more than ever. However in these delays perhaps that is good reason to pause and take breathe and determine if the policies laid out before us are all really policy changes that are a force for good?

Consistency and concrete measures of success to create long term sustainable education and skills policies are vital if they are to be effective, and when a new leader comes to power any review of skills and education policies must be carefully considered with these factors in mind, as should the ability to implement such policies without creating unintended consequences. 

Over the summer, we will no doubt see the headlines dominated with speculation on the various manoeuvres the candidates will make to take the top job. Regardless of who emerges to become the next Prime Minister, perhaps the most vital thing to remember is that there is a world of difference between winning and leading.

By Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO – City & Guilds

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