From education to employment

What educators can learn from the difference between JFK and Jeff Bezos: The 3 V’s of Leadership

Sid Madge is founder of Meee (My Education Employment Enterprise)

Have you ever considered how your leadership role in education might relate to the space race?

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress that the US would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the 1960s. There is little doubt Kennedy was determined to catch up to and ideally overtake the Soviet Union in the ‘space race’. He was also pretty keen to put the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the rear-view mirror and look to a brighter, more inspiring future.

The decision involved enormous human collective effort and vast expenditure to make Project Apollo a reality by 1969. Only the construction of the Panama Canal in modern peacetime and the Manhattan Project in war were comparable in scope. The goal was achieved on July 20 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped from the Lunar Module onto the Moon’s surface uttering the immortal words, “That’s one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.”

Exactly 52 years later on the 20 July, 2021 Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and richest man on Earth emerged from his New Shepard rocket and capsule after a suborbital flight that lasted 11 minutes. The rocket was built by his Blue Origin space company.

The two could not have been more different. These differences come down to leadership. And specifically the 3 Vs of leadership, which can be illustrated by the goal of reaching space and applied in education also.

The need for Vision

On 12 September 1962, Kennedy told the audience “We choose to go to the Moon”. Kennedy characterized space as a new frontier, invoking the pioneer spirit that dominated American folklore. He infused his speech with a sense of urgency and destiny, and emphasized the freedom enjoyed by Americans to choose their destiny rather than have it chosen for them. Although he called for competition with the Russians, Kennedy also proposed making the moon landing a joint project.

The moon landing was a seminal point in global history. Not just for Americans but for every global citizen. A reminder of what could be achieved through human ingenuity and determination. It galvanized a nation to believe in themselves again and kicked off a culture of creativity and innovation.

And whilst there is little doubt that Jeff Bezos has followed in those footsteps of innovation, creativity and determination in bringing Amazon to the world, he has not done so in a spirit of collaboration and mutual success. Bezos has been widely and consistently criticised for the way his success has been achieved.

Kennedy’s vision and its fruition was inclusive, exciting, liberating and inspiring. Bezos’s vision somehow seems shallow, self-absorbed and insular in comparison. Bezos has repeatedly put his own success and his own fortune before the working conditions of his staff, he is well known for aggressive tax avoidance and his choice of putting his fortune into space tourism when climate change is such a pressing Earth challenge seems almost petty.

While Bezos may fit the old model of success and leadership, he most certainly does not fit the modern model. We need something much more real, much more authentic and much more inclusive.

Leadership is only possible with followership. If no one is following then there is no leadership.

Surely, genuine leadership is taking others with you, making it better and easier for everyone who comes in contact with a company or organisation: staff, suppliers, customers, students – everyone. We are all human beings but too often we are expected to go to work and become machines.

The new model of leadership needs to focus on human beings, being human…


Being human is about being willing to be vulnerable and recognising that none of us are perfect or better than each other regardless of position or job title.

This is not rocket science

Start with the New Zealand All Blacks unofficial motto – Don’t be a d**khead. If that’s a little too edgy for you, then a similar, more palatable sentiment can be found in the Bible, treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself.

Great leaders are strong and decisive, but also human. Having the humility, self-confidence and self-awareness to recognise the value of others builds great individuals, organisations including educational institutions, and societies. We all have the ability to be great leaders, guiding ourselves and others and making the essential small and large-scale decisions that keep the world moving. Our programme LEAD builds an inclusive approach through empathy, integrity and communication. It’s an acronym for: Learning Engagement Approach Destination

Being human means embracing our fears and finding the courage to do it anyway. Perfection is not required. Effort is all that matters. The continual striving to be better. That’s what JFK had over Bezos. JFK encouraged everyone to believe – not only in the moon shot but also themselves, their country and the ingenuity of humanity itself. Bezos took his brother with him and the son of a private equity CEO who paid a fortune for the privilege. To be fair, he also took Wally Funk, an 82-year-old female aviation pioneer who trained as an astronaut in the 1960s but never went to space. Even still, there was nothing inclusive or inspiring about it. It was born out of personal curiosity, ego and excessive inequality. The feel of both endeavours is wildly different because the leadership, intention and vision was wildly different.

When we open ourselves up to our humanity, and the innate vulnerability that this includes, we open ourselves up to courage and creativity. When we let go of our perfectionist tendencies and our fear of failure, we find the bravery to improve ourselves, be role models for those around us and to have difficult, important conversations with our colleagues. We need to work with others not against them, we need to encourage and inspire not use and discard others. We need to be human beings, free to be human in all that we do – good and not so good. Humanity is flawed but together we are extraordinary.

Too many of us consider vulnerability a weakness and yet nothing could be further from the truth. After explaining that vulnerability is the emotion that accompanies risk and uncertainty, Brené Brown asked a room of special forces military personnel whether any of them had ever undertaken or witnessed a courageous act that did not require them to feel vulnerable. None of the soldiers could come up with a single example of courage without vulnerability. As soon as these hardened soldiers focused on their lived experiences of courage, the myth of vulnerability and weakness crumbled.

And vulnerability isn’t just essential to courage. In fact, it is the cornerstone of human innovation and creativity. There is so much uncertainty inherent to the creative process that successful innovation usually requires a significant amount of failure before success. Whether as leaders or as teachers and educators we owe our employees or students the truth. Success is impossible without effort and a lot of failure.

And yet the modern workplace or classroom often feels like a gladiator’s arena – a battle for supremacy. A dog eat dog, win at all costs contest of winners and losers. The quest is to win rather than work together so that everyone can win. Is it any wonder that the old model of leadership is the top dog? But such an approach assumes a zero-sum game. For someone to win someone else must lose. Again, Bezos springs to mind. For him to be worth $206 BILLION, hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers have to struggle on minimum wage with no benefits.

The rewards go to the smartest or most ruthless rather than the kindest or most inclusive. True leadership is the appreciation of the complexity and duality of life and of people. No one is perfect or brilliant all the time but working together we can be brilliant all the time. Humanity, working together rather than in competition can be astonishing. We need to honour that far more than the dog-eat-dog success at all costs alternative that is no longer fit for purpose.

Value, Values, Valued

Of course, what we reward comes down to what we value. So what do you as a leader in education value?

This is one of the key questions we ask in our FUEL programme. The attention we give things is in proportion to their value. And where our focus goes, our energy flows.

Our values inform our decisions, judgments and where we spend our time. They determine what we consider important in our lives. Getting clear on our values is also crucial for effective leadership. What do you stand for? During times of uncertainty and vulnerability, our values become our ‘North Star’, helping to guide us through periods of struggle. When we know our values, we can make faster decision by immediately discounting options that contravene our values. When we know our values, we take more risks, secure in the knowledge that our values will guide us through without compromising our integrity.

Make a list. And then whittle that list down to just two things. According to research, derived from hundreds of interviews with global executive leaders, the leaders most willing to experience vulnerability and demonstrate courage, anchored themselves to no more than two. Two values are actionable. Name your two most important values, let them guide your behaviour and hold them close when times get tough.

For leadership to flourish we have to have vision, vulnerability and clear values. We need to use those elements to be more inclusive and look beyond just results to effort, inclusivity and taking everyone with you. This is important for the leadership team running our colleges efficiently and effectively. It is also important in providing leadership role models for young people both in the classroom and the wider college environment, and when they move into the workplace.

Sid Madge is founder of Meee (My Education Employment Enterprise)

Meee (My Education Employment Enterprise), draws on the best creativity and thinking from the worlds of branding, psychology, neuroscience, education and sociology, to help people achieve extraordinary lives. To date, Meee has transformed the lives of over 20,000 people, from leaders of PLC’s and SME’s to parents, teachers, students, carers, the unemployed and prison inmates. Sid Madge is also author of the ‘Meee in Minute’ series of books which each offer 60 ways to change your life, work-, or family-life in 60 seconds.

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