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

The best thing written about leadership pre-dates the Harvard Business Review. In fact it pre-dates Harvard, pre-dates the English language, even. It was written in what we now call Ancient Greek by Sophocles, an Ancient Geek. It’s a play called King Oedipus.

Oedipus is a heroic leader. The people of Thebes have been greatly troubled by a monster who devours everyone that cannot solve its riddle. Quite a problem.

‘What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?’

‘Er……..’ Chomp, chomp.

But Oedipus saves the city - the corporate enterprise - by finding meaning, the meaning beneath the confusing surface data. ‘The answer is ‘humankind’’! This kills the monster. The city – or company, we might say – is saved and everyone moves into health and prosperity. Oedipus is elected king, who else? CEO, in leadership terms.

Regrettably, that’s about as good as it gets for Oedipus. Next thing, the people of Thebes start keeling over with plague. Cue the heroic leader. Oedipus is able and he knows it. Didn’t he see off that monster? Anyone else’s crisis is but a challenge to him and he can’t resist a challenge. He’ll single-handedly get to the heart of what’s wrong and by dint of pure, penetrating understanding save the enterprise all over again.

He starts interviewing anyone and everyone who might have some relevant info and piecing together the answers. Only the answers aren’t good. In fact they’re very bad. Really dire? Probably still understates it.

In modern parlance we could put it accurately but euphemistically this way. Turns out, the corporate enterprise of Thebes isn’t afflicted with plague but is suffering from ‘lack of discretionary effort’ stemming back to Oedipus’ defective ‘emotional intelligence’. Only….

Did I say emotional intelligence? Actually, Oedipus has unknowingly murdered his own father. And Oedipus’s wife? Er, she’s his mum (also unknowingly). I stress the unknowingly bit. Not that it helps Oedipus. He takes the brooch from his tunic, stabs out his eyes, kind of one for each parent, and stumbles out of Thebes never to return. Ouch.

So what’s the leadership learning, then? At least two things.

Obvious one first: something about the limits of heroic leadership.

One astonishing success may not indicate an unfailing capacity to succeed.

Being the brainiest on the team doesn’t necessarily make you the best one to lead it. Especially if you’re so full of your own brilliance (hubris in Ancient Geek leadership jargon) that you never stop to consider the implications of the Johari window, the humility that comes from pondering all that you don’t know even about yourself, never mind the world beyond. People can manage without genius in their CEO but professionally they perish if their leader can’t supply the humbler qualities of clear direction and moral purpose.

The second point is much more optimistic. Credit to Oedipus for what he does right. He tackles the most important problem. OK, pretty unmistakeable but fair do’s, his judgement’s correct. He’s also right that it’s non-delegable: everyone needs to know the boss is on the case. And boy does he go for it. Totally full marks for the determination and single-mindedness he brings to the enquiry. The idea of failure simply never gets above his horizon.

But he teaches us something else too in startling clarity and it’s this:

Never be surprised if as CEO you set out to solve a problem which appears to be ‘out there’, rooted somewhere in the organisation maybe a very long way from your office only to find the more you learn about it the closer it seems to be creeping to your threshold…to your desk…to YOU.

When this happens, you get a pretty sinking feeling. If you’re not used to it, it’s perplexing, frustrating, you feel angry and it saps your confidence all at the same time. Not good.

The way out of it is first of all to recognise it’s not personal. What’s happening goes with the position not your personality. What you thought was malfunctioning ‘out there’ in the organisation is probably the result of policy or procedures not working, either because it’s badly framed or because it’s not being implemented correctly. As CEO, you’re responsible for the optimal functioning of policy, procedures AND people so of course the problem boomerangs back at you. If you’re feeling down about it, take heart: it’s a positive sign you’re living up to your job.

If it’s not an implementation problem, the chances are it’s because of all the small but significant signals staff have been interpreting from your behaviour as CEO. These can massively affect organisational culture and behaviour and not always for the best. In the words of Lou Reed, spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard. Even if you didn’t know you were.

Beyond this recognition is something even more important. If the problem is with you it’s yours to control. You may be able to rectify faults in policy or procedure quite quickly. If it’s people you can work with them bit by bit to improve things. Changing your own behaviour may mean swallowing some pride and may take time and some help to break old habits but it’s doable.

If you can get over the initial nasty shock when that boomerang catches you between the eyes, enormous benefits for the organisation can follow.

Here’s a graph that tries to show how. It’s not by Sophocles.

Oedipus Graph

The first point is that not everyone will accept the reciprocity between CEO and staff behaviour. I remember taking the results of a staff survey to a governors’ meeting with some trepidation. ‘No more than I’d expect’, said a business governor, ‘that’s the way staff are’.

But if you accept that staff behaviour isn’t fixed and does relate to a CEO’s own behaviour then in some circumstances huge improvements can be achieved very quickly. Quite a small change in CEO behaviour – maybe what feels like a concession – represented by the shift from ‘a’ to ‘b’ on the graph can produce a really significant change in the way staff feel (the distance ‘c’ to ‘d’) with a consequent improvement for the organisation in terms of discretionary effort, staff being prepared to go the extra mile.

But the graph also suggests that after that initial big turn-round, you shouldn’t expect repeated large strides: the more leadership improves thereafter, the less impactful change is. It becomes more a question of small, incremental measures which contribute to maintaining a harmonious status quo.

I also like the way the graph is asymptotic – the lines never cross the x or y axes however far you extend them – indicating that however bad it can get, leadership is never entirely without hope and also that however brilliant it is there’ll always be some staff who’ll grumble about it.

And anyway, cheer up. There’s no monster in the foyer asking visitors impossible riddles, no one’s at their desk dying of plague and you haven’t……OMG, have you?!

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

Find him on LinkedIn.

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page