by Paul Temple
The team that ran the MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education in London would meet each July for a year-end review and to think about what improvements we might make to the programme in the coming year. In most years, someone would suggest re-naming the programme as “the MBA in Higher Education Leadership”, or perhaps “Leadership and Management”. I always objected to the change, on the grounds that while I could say what I thought “management” was and had some ideas about how it might be taught, I had no idea what “leadership” actually was and even less of an idea about how we might teach it. Of course, everyone has examples of great leadership being enacted: my own favourite is Ernest Shackleton addressing his crew standing around on the Antarctic pack-ice in October 1915: “The ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home”. But telling us what outstanding leaders say and do isn’t the same as telling us what leadership is.
Actually, though, the real reason for my objection was the thought of having to present the case for a change of course title at Institute committee meetings at which, I foresaw with perfect clarity, those present, having no special knowledge of the subject and no responsibility for the decision’s outcome, would obey Watson’s First Law of Higher Education: that an academic’s degree of certainty on any given topic is directly proportional to its distance from their actual field of expertise.
I was reminded of all this by a review of the “managers vs leaders” debate in a recent issue of The Economist (28 October 2023). One distinction noted there from Kotter in 1977 was that management is a problem-solving discipline aiming to create predictability, whereas leadership is about change and the unknown. This is close to the aphorism which we sometimes used when asked about the distinction: management is about doing things right, whereas leadership is about doing the right things. (Shackleton was certainly leading his crew into the unknown, but he had people with him who were excellent problem-solvers.) The Economist review quotes research by Bandiera et al at the LSE that suggests that CEOs “who displayed the behaviour of leaders were associated with better company performance overall”, although some firms, the researchers concluded, would be better off with “manager” CEOs. Helpful, eh? What the review notes, though, is that the success of the leadership-oriented CEOs’ companies may depend on top-class managers sitting with them round the boardroom table. In other words, as you might have guessed, successful organisations need both good leaders and good managers in their top jobs.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, Helen MacNamara, his deputy, and Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, are civil servants working at the very pinnacle of British public service. It is, I think, a safe bet that their annual appraisals consistently identified their outstanding leadership qualities: if they had been seen merely as excellent managers they would be working at somewhere like DVLA in Swansea, not in the Cabinet Office or 10 Downing Street.
And yet, as the Covid inquiry has revealed in awful detail, in the worst British peacetime crisis in modern times this group of supposedly brilliant leaders were collectively unable to ensure that the centre of government operated with even an ordinary level of effectiveness. Yes, they had to deal with a catastrophically useless Prime Minister and the – how shall I put it? – difficult Dominic Cummings (I blogged about him here in February 2020), but – look, guys – sorting out problems like these are what you’re there for. Leaders, as opposed to poor old plodding managers, are there to deal with impossible situations (OK, so I do have a definition of “leadership” after all): Shackleton didn’t say to his crew, “Well, sorry, but I’ve no idea about what to do now.” This is actually more or less what Case – just to remind you, the head of the Civil Service – says: “Am not sure I can cope with today. Might just go home.” Well, you and I have probably felt the same sometimes, but we weren’t supposed to be running the country during a crisis.
Other failings of this group of supposed top leaders? A notable one was when the rest of us were wondering if it would be OK to meet a friend in the park, MacNamara was taking a karaoke machine into work to ensure the party went with a swing. And of course there was “Party-Marty” Reynolds, sending an email inviting staff to a bring-your-own-booze party at Number Ten. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbour was dying alone in hospital, his family and friends unable to say goodbye to him. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of a rethink about leadership.
Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.