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How Can We Hone Our Leadership within the Vocational Education Training (VET) Sector?

Ben Rowland Exclusive

Ben Rowland discusses the essence of effective leadership in the 21st century, particularly within the Vocational Education Training (VET) sector. He emphasizes the importance of balancing big picture thinking with a deep understanding of detail, highlighting the often overlooked area of neuroscience in learning as a key detail that VET leaders should grasp.

The Misconceptions of Leadership

What does it take to be a leader in education in the 21st century? How can we hone our own leadership within the Vocational Education Training (VET) Sector?

Leadership is often talked about in vaulting terms often designed to flatter the ego and status of ‘the leader’. It is about ‘the big picture’, ‘being brave’ and ‘long term vision’. It’s all a bit Napoleonic (or Churchillian or Thatcherite, if you prefer). If you don’t like the image of a brooding military leader, then there are plenty of charisma-based models that we encouraged to admire, whether that’s Barack Obama, Sheryl Sandberg or Sir Alex Ferguson: the person who can inspire their colleagues to go further, quicker and better.

The truth is that all of these leaders – and all truly effective leaders – are not just about “big picture” and charisma.

The Essence of Effective Leadership

Leadership is about determining the right course of action (or at least, a good course of action), bringing the people with you who are needed to get that course of action implemented and then proactively learning and improving.

All of this requires vision and the ability to connect with people – for sure.

But it also requires a level of understanding of the detail. If you understand the detail, you can make sense of the overall patterns (you can’t see the ‘wood’ if you don’t know much about the ‘trees’ in it). And it requires the ability to discern patterns from the details and to know when, and how, to go between the detail and the big picture in a way that others understand.

Getting this balance between big picture and detail is, in my view, one of the hardest things for a leader to do. Those who get it right are generally great leaders, and vice versa.

The Importance of Detail in Vocational Education Training (VET)

If you work in VET – especially in the UK – you don’t need me to tell you about the level of detail required.

How to interpret funding rules, how to keep on top of your sales pipeline, how to standardise across trainers and learners and how to find, recruit and keep staff are all standard parts of the day job.

You cannot succeed solely by operating at the ‘big picture’ level: detail is where it is won and lost. But equally, if you cannot create, for yourself, your colleagues and your stakeholders, a sense of how it all fits together then you become ensnared in the very detail that you need to understand.

The Missing Detail: Understanding How Learning Works

From my first nine roadshows, where I have had the privilege to meet with over 200 people in all corners of the country, I am in no doubt that we have some exceptional leaders, who ‘get’ both big picture and detail and are clearly able to bring them together for the benefit of their learners and the employers they work with.

However, there is one area of detail where I think as a sector we need to improve our understanding of the detail and which was conspicuous by its absence from the otherwise full and rich discussions at the 25 different roadshow sessions.

That area of detail is about how human beings actually acquire skills. At the moment it is viewed as a bit of a ‘black box’, an ‘art’.

However, there is rapidly emerging neuroscience around how we actually learn. I did not know, for example, about the role of neurotransmitters in whether learners learn or not until a few years ago (like epinephrine and acetylcholine). I felt a bit embarrassed that I had become a leader in VET without knowing this stuff. We should all know it and talk about it. It is an essential piece of detail.

Becoming Better Leaders through Understanding Learning

By understanding how learning works, from the neuroscience up, we will be better placed to lead as well. This detail means we can design better programmes, sell more efficiently to our customers and help our learners learn more, more quickly and more effectively. And if we are doing this, we are leading more effectively as well for the benefit of our learners, our employers and for the country as a whole.

Margaret Thatcher, Sir Alex Ferguson, Elon Musk and other great leaders are famous for being all over the detail that matters. We need to make sure that we are too.

By Ben Rowland, Chief Executive Officer, AELP

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