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No college needs a scary boss: Purpose, not personality, is the key to success

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

When I was contemplating applying to become a college principal I was haunted by the kind of person I thought I needed to be: “Strong-willed, quick-tempered, irritable, irascible, impatient, goal-orientated”.

Why did I carry around with me this pen-portrait of the personality the role demanded?

Partly because that was how some principals came across at conferences. Maybe you needed a personality like that to succeed?

So just in case anyone reads this and thinks the cap fits, let me add straight away that I came across the italicised bit above in the Times Literary Supplement.

The writer was describing the ‘War and Peace’ chap, Tolstoy. (Goes to show there’s no corner of Creation where leadership and quality does not leap out at you if you’re sufficiently obsessed….)

But there were deeper reasons for thinking that this was the model for success:

  1. First, having a clear idea of where the organisation needs to get to and a personal presence capable of persuading staff towards it seemed to fit with the stature, power and responsibility of the role as I imagined it to be.
  2. Secondly, a real anxiety that this character depiction was not me. How would I ever feel that certain of myself? Achieve that kind of clarity of vision? Or find the audacity to impose what I thought best on other people? Perhaps the person spec I’d invented was just the projection of a lack of self-confidence?

Despite these doubts, I got the job of college principal, underwent no personality-change and for many months could not shake off the troubling anxiety. Mild-mannered me: I was an imposter. Sooner or later I was going to be found out.

Eventually, something astonishing happened. Ofsted dropped by and awarded the college a string of ‘outstanding’ grades.

Unexpected? I could show you the wall I leant against when I was given the news and quite literally staggered.

So how, without the grand vision and the big personality, had that happened?

It happened because personality turned out not to matter. Purpose, not personality, was the key thing. We – really everyone at the college – wanted to do the best we possibly could for the students.

Pacing the corridors, scaring everyone with an irascible, quick temper is one way to motivate people but the truth is staff work a great deal more effectively if the motivation is positive not negative. And there is nothing more positive and motivational than aiming to help others; nothing more rewarding than seeing that happen.

This didn’t have anything to do with personality, mine or anyone else’s. It was not my purpose, but everyone’s; bigger than us all, inspiring us all, whatever our role at the college, to do the best we could.

Nor did we need a grand vision of what success would eventually look like. With a clear, shared purpose the destination took care of itself because we could always check what we were doing against what we should be doing and improve where we were falling short.

You do not need brilliant strategic vision for that. As with a maths problem, get the steps right as you go along and the right answer is inevitable.

Or as the Liverpool FC Manager Jürgen Klopp recently said, “I don’t think you can break records because you want to break records. You break records because you are 100% focused on each step.”

By the light of a clear purpose any obstacles loom large. When you very simply, very single-mindedly want the best for students – your path clarifies. As I came to think of it, you just need to keep lopping the tops off the tallest nettles and bit by bit the scary green monsters threatening you at head-height are all gone. The way clears.

So is it really as simple as that? In essence, yes. No organisation needs a scary boss. It absolutely does need someone who can find the purpose that will inspire the best from everyone and who can communicate and keep communicating that purpose clearly. In action as well as word. Oh, and who is utterly fearless when it comes to nettles. Nettles of all kinds.

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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