From education to employment

What is your Leadership Symptom?

Dr Simon Western, Adjunct Professor University College Dublin, President ISPSO, CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching

An exciting new research initiative sponsored by FETL (Further Education Trust for Leadership) aims to answer the question, what is the FE sector’s ‘leadership symptom’ and then to respond to it with new thinking on leadership.

Leadership is a problematic subject. Mainstream leadership books, articles and training courses often produce idealised leadership fads and rhetoric that are turned into vision statements, grandiose speeches and competency frameworks.

A problem arises when these leadership approaches are experienced as propaganda that covers over the very different leadership-followership dynamics that employees experience in their everyday lives. Any talk about leadership is then experienced as another form of fake news.

These ‘fantasy leadership’ ideas stimulate a mixture of disbelief and ironic smiles, and employees quickly become disillusioned when espoused theories being ‘preached’ from secular leadership pulpits, clash with the realities they experience.

In FE, gaps between espoused leadership intention and the reality experienced by those affected – often adversely – has recently been explored and problematised in a new book, The Principal (Eds Daley et al 2017) and also in the book review by Lynne Sedgmore (2017)

The Research Project

To address the challenges of leadership in FE, we need to start from a different place. In the 20th century, leadership was largely imported as a top-down approach, taking leadership ideas and theories mainly from powerful USA business schools and corporate consultancies. In the 1980s and 90s, for example, ‘Transformational leadership’ (Bass 1990 and Burns 1978) was the imported fad that went global.

This research project rejects this top-down approach and we have chosen to start from the bottom up. We will ‘begin from the beginning’ and collect empirical data on the hidden leadership assumptions that underpin how leadership is perceived and thought about in FE, and how these assumptions and perceptions shape what actually takes place in practice.

Dr Simon Westerns’ published research (Western 2010, 2011, 2013) reveals how four main leadership discourses have emerged over the past century.

  1. Controller
  2. Therapist
  3. Messiah, and
  4. Eco-leadership

These four approaches inform the way leadership is thought about and practiced. These discourses work largely beneath our conscious awareness, shaping how we think about leadership and how we act as both leaders and followers. Leadership is often discussed as-if we share a common understanding of it, yet there are hidden and conflicting narratives and assumptions about what we believe leadership is.

This research project reveals these hidden assumptions which then allows us to develop a deeper understanding of ‘where we are now’ in terms of leadership and followership.

Global Leadership Perceptions

In Dr Western’s latest book Global Leadership Perceptions (Western 2018) he has undertaken a study of leadership in twenty countries to discover how these four discourses present themselves.

The findings show that the four discourses present uniquely, depending on the countries history, political and economic circumstances and cultural background. It also reveals how each country has its own special leadership and followership essences or what we call their ‘symptom of leadership’. Too often, leadership theories are taken from one culture and inserted into another, top-down, as-if they are universal or directly transferable.

The book shows, instead, that in spite of the ‘globalisation of leadership’, each country retained and developed hidden and unrecognised forms of leadership and followership that were culturally specific. The book concluded that only by paying attention to these local ‘leadership symptoms’ could specific leadership approaches and development processes be designed that would produce sustainable and dynamic change.

Leadership ‘symptoms’ specific to FE

The research project we are undertaking is based on the belief that a similar process will unfold in the FE Sector. The FE sector as a whole and each organisation in particular has its own specific history and culture. Whilst these are influenced by wider UK and global forces, the sector and each organization also retains its unique leadership essence or symptom. The research will undertake an empirical study across selected colleges to discover a baseline discourse analysis of how leadership operates in present-day FE in the UK.

We will then refine these findings with qualitative research to discover amongst other things, what leadership ‘symptoms’ and essences are specific to FE. Finally, we will bring our wide experience of how leadership and followership operate in diverse sectors, organisations, cultures and international settings, to bear on the findings we discover in the FE sector.

We then aim to offer some new thinking on how leadership can be ‘unleashed’ in the FE sector, beyond the confines of global dogmas, to speak to the real issues, challenges and opportunities that exist.

To do this we need to discover ‘what is the FE leadership symptom’ and then help those of you working in the sector to learn how to ‘enjoy your symptom!’

Colleges and organisations that partake in this research will also have the opportunity to gain free leadership development for individuals (each participant gets a personalised leadership feedback report) and a free organisational leadership report.

Dr Simon Western, Adjunct Professor University College Dublin, President ISPSO, CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching

Note: The first 10 colleges (or other FE provider organisations) who sign up to the research will receive this free development offer. Colleges need to provide 30-50 employees from a diverse background to join our study.

This research is sponsored by FETL and delivered by Dr Simon Western and his team.


Bass, B. (1990) ‘From transactional to transformational leadership: learning to share the vision’, Organizational Dynamics, 18: 19–31. 

Burns, J. (1978) Leadership. New York: Harper & Row. 

Daley M, Orr K, Petrie J (2017) The Principal, Power and Professionalism in FE UCL IoE Press

Sedgmore L, (2017) A multi-faceted critique of FE leadership

Western S. & Eric-Jean Garcia (2018 forthcoming) Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis, Sage pub

Western S. (2013) Leadership: A Critical Text. Sage 2nd edition, Sage pub

Western, S. (2011) The Discourses of Leadership, (in.) Educational Leadership: Context, Strategy and Collaboration, [Ed:] Preedy M., Bennett N. and Wise C. (published by Sage in association with The Open University).

Western, S. (2010) Eco-Leadership: Towards the Development of a New Paradigm, (in.) Leadership for Environmental Sustainability. [Ed:] Redekop B., New York, NY & Milton Park: Routledge, UK.

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