From education to employment

Why do some college leaders fail in their ambition to improve their colleges?

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant

There are a million and one reasons why some college leaders fail in their ambition to improve their colleges.

The key to success lies in overcoming self-doubt, argues Chris Thomson…

Over the last decade and a half Ofsted have had a periodic go at outlining some of them. Why colleges succeed (2004), Why colleges fail (2004) and How colleges improve (2008 & 2012) are still relevant and practical guides about what – and what not – to do.

But people aren’t machines. You can’t programme a college principal with the content of these guides as you could a computer in the knowledge that what you’ve inputted will be actioned. People need more than just instructions about what to do. Even CEOs need to feel confident about what they’re doing, assured about the outcomes, resolute that the risks involved – there are always risks – can be mitigated.

And it’s that – the way people think and feel – that can get in the way of great advice leading to great results.

What if, even with the best guidance available, you aren’t confident you personally can implement it successfully? And which college leader – or leader of any other organisation for that matter – doesn’t harbour such doubts?

Given the myriad difficulties they have zero power to control, the high expectations they have zero power to influence and the considerable responsibility they have zero power to delegate it’s not difficult to see why self-doubt creeps in from time to time. For quite a lot of the time actually.

Even when the challenge is faced squarely it can seem like a mountain to climb. If the clouds clear and the summit gleams brilliantly it nonetheless seems impossibly far, impossibly high.

Harsh as it is to say given how bad self-doubt feels for the leader who suffers it, it’s a lot worse for the organisation itself. Leader self-doubt is one important reason why great intentions peter out in mediocre results.

It runs through an organisation like a dye. Bold plans may be set but the people carrying them out won’t fully believe them possible. Managers may speak of expectation but what they really mean is hope. There is a strategic plan but its fingers are crossed. If good results are achieved they come with a sense of relief, or even surprise.

So what’s the antidote? How do you break the syndrome? Two things. First, think of someone – anyone – who seems impervious to self-doubt….maybe with interesting hair…. So the ability to call yourself in question is a leadership strength. Right?

Second, focus on the importance of the job in hand. If you’re leading a college, your job is to safeguard learners’ aspirations, their lives, their futures. Their quality of life is at stake. It’s that important. So your self-doubt is now conveniently beside the point. Regardless of your hypothetical shortcomings or inabilities the sheer significance and worthwhileness of what you’re engaged in can provide the energy to see you through. No difficulty believing in a cause like that.

Your colleagues start to pick up a new and invigorating signal from you. Impress them. Tell them it’s a paradigm shift from a doubt-based to a conviction-based leadership model or similar claptrap.

Far more important, they’ll be reading from the way you speak and behave that falling short is no longer an option. If something doesn’t work, we’ll learn why and do better. If we find we genuinely don’t have a necessary skill or expertise we’ll find someone who does. We’ll invent, we’ll revise, we’ll re-think, we’ll scrutinise ourselves and others but we simply will not let up until we get to the top of that mountain. If the peak seems dauntingly far away, forget it: we’ll focus on the next step. But get there we will because, fallible as we may be, we’re driven by the over-riding importance of what we’re doing.

A simple but unwavering determination to do the best you can for those you serve may not sound like a complete skill-set for the modern leader. It’s certainly not. But it is simple, unvarnished, ancient wisdom. William Blake knew it for a truth two hundred years ago. ‘A firm persuasion’, he wrote, ‘removes mountains.’ So it does.

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

Find him on LinkedIn.

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