Stoical leadership in a ‘bear market’ in higher and further education

Professor Jill Jameson, Professor of Education and Director, Centre for Leadership and Enterprise at the University of Greenwich discusses stoical leadership…

In 2016, in a difficult global environment, stoical, trustworthy leadership of higher and further education is needed more than ever before. In harsh times, the deeper values and purposes of authentic educational leaders stand out clearly. Research on trust and leadership demonstrates that when education is led and delivered well by trustworthy leaders, it develops resilience, self-reliance and positivity through knowledge and skills. It fosters social harmony through communities of learning. It enables new growth and adaptive change in difficult times. It also helps students to progress in their achievements to gain confidence and employment. Such education brings comfort, economic stability, new meaning and relief to communities that are insecure and anxious in such troubled times.

Stoical leadership in a ‘bear market’ in higher and further education

Across the world, in early 2016, we face difficult, uncertain times. Mass migration and security crises, global macro-economic challenges, climate change and terrorism issues are now so complex and bleak that a convergence of hazards seems to be gathering. As Dickens might have said, globally we seem to be approaching ‘the worst of times’. As oil prices drop to 12 year lows, a new recession looms, and politicians on all sides alert us to Brexit and Bremain arguments of the UK leaving or staying in Europe, either way, a maelstrom of unknown perils threatens to destabilise certainties we once knew.

As people shiver in the freezing winter of a ‘bear market’, conditions are harsh. In higher and further education in the UK and elsewhere, leaders are challenged as never before by the uncertainties of funding cuts, global competition, staff overload, student demand, health and security issues and ever rising quality and productivity targets in key performance indicators. When times are so difficult, scepticism and distrust tend to be on the rise.

People are generally less willing to take risks and to trust others. Fear and uncertainty increase. That’s what a pessimistic ‘bear market’ heralds in the economy and wider environment: a negative terrain in which caution and loss of confidence prevail.

During harsh times, the values and well-tested practices of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can help us. Stoicism fosters the strength and happiness that can be found in inner virtue during times of great uncertainty and change. It encourages a focus on integrity, endurance and composure in all of our endeavours. It is a useful philosophy for leaders who need to foster trust and to develop inner resilience.

Research interviews and surveys on trust and leadership in higher and further education (Jameson, 2006, 2012) have reaffirmed the importance of principled leadership in which senior manager’s act with benevolence, openness, competence, high standards of moral conduct and emotional intelligence. Such leadership is essential to foster trust.

When communities are threatened by uncertainties, strong leaders are needed to act as beacons of hope, speaking out and acting with clarity, wisdom, temperance and courage. Those leaders do not have to be perfect. In fact, it is better if they are not. We need leaders who act calmly with humour and humility, showing they are not – indeed are not trying to be – immaculate. It is easier for people to trust leaders who demonstrate human authenticity in ordinary ways, admitting frailty, than to have confidence in those who act as Teflon puppets. To demonstrate the importance of leadership authenticity, I recall a story told to me some years ago in interviews on trust and leadership in post compulsory education (Jameson, 2006)1 by a distinguished leader of further education, a person much honoured for her work. We can call this person ‘Lillian’, for convenience sake, though that is not her real name.

Lillian said that, many years previously, she had been appointed as a young senior educational manager of a faculty full of academics much older, more qualified and experienced than she was. She had a very difficult time for the first few months. The staff regarded her as a naïve newcomer. She aroused resentment when trying to introduce many changes in the faculty that did not go down at all well. Lillian said that although she worked diligently, developing expertise in the faculty subject areas, attempting ‘gravitas’, trying everything she could think of to support these academic experts, the planned changes she tried to introduce continued to fail. She was at a loss to know why the staff did not seem to value or trust her, why some of them in fact seemed to hate her and blocked all the changes she had proposed.

Hence there was a palpable sense of dislike as Lillian rose to speak to faculty staff one afternoon at an important meeting. She was shaking with nervousness, but, summoning up her courage, she determined to speak her mind to these academics, even if it was really difficult.

Lillian decided to confront them with the truth. Bravely, putting herself on the line, she apologised for her mistakes when introducing changes in the faculty. She told the staff she was working as hard as she could, but she wasn’t as experienced and knowledgeable as they were and therefore had got things wrong. She said she was learning, developing expertise, but hadn’t got there yet. She asked for their help and patience in supporting her to grow in knowledge of the faculty, to understand what they needed and how the curriculum could grow in beneficial ways. She asked them to guide and help her in trying to change things for the better.

Interestingly, instead of ridiculing this vulnerable young manager or rejecting her apology, the academic staff, including those who had previously resented and hated her, suddenly seemed to turn around slightly. They suddenly began to warm to Lillian on that afternoon. By speaking the truth, she had broken through to them. By humbly acknowledging her own weaknesses and their strengths, by recognising and valuing their expertise and asking for their support, Lillian had begun to win them over. With tears in her eyes, Lillian realised that suddenly the staff were clapping her speech, accepting her apology, unexpectedly agreeing to support her.

In leadership, sometimes things turn suddenly, from one moment to the next. From that day onwards, Lillian consciously understood for the first time how essential it was for leaders to be authentic. She began to recognise that leaders needed to hold onto their inner values and to speak out, even if it looks like weakness. She realised that leaders needed to demonstrate they are truthful, courageous human beings, unafraid to admit their faults and ignorance, albeit selectively and in a self-controlled way. She understood there was no point in unrealistic acting, in trying to pretend to people she was an expert if she was not.

Lillian realised that it was better to be honest, to speak her mind and heart, however flawed, than to try to take on an air of false prestige she did not really possess. She also realised that sometimes an honest apology wins the hearts and minds of people in ways that nothing else will. She told me it was a lesson she has never forgotten: to this day, Lillian, much celebrated for her work and contributions to executive management in further and higher education, continues to promote the concepts of values-based and authentic leadership. In addition to authenticity, we need leaders who demonstrably understand the many benefits that education and training can bring. Ideally, such leaders need to be keen learners and adaptive ‘change agents’ themselves. In harsh times like these, such leaders clearly show the way in which the deep values and purposes of education stand out. Our institutions of higher and further education can be the engines of social growth and adaptive change in difficult times. It is important that both policymakers and institutional leaders in the public sector develop the resilience and self-confident stoical leadership that inspires staff to feel that they are valued and trusted.

Another of the outstanding educational leaders in further and higher education I interviewed many years ago (Jameson, 2006) said that managers needed to recognise ‘how long a shadow they cast’. By ‘shadow’, he meant the impression that senior leaders and managers made on others in their area of control: what are the real effects of the work that is carried out by senior management? Leadership that welcomes constructive critique and encourages openness in discussion and transparency in decision making is important. Procedural fairness that is very evidently practised and valued throughout educational institutions encourages trust.

It is easy to write policies and strategies about this. What is harder is to make this happen on the ground, every day. This does not necessarily mean that leaders always need to be highly visible all the time. In fact, the ‘visibility/invisibility’ paradox that I have written about (Jameson, 2015)2 suggests that sometimes ‘less is more’. Sometimes, particularly in times of crisis, it is essential for leaders overtly to speak out, to be demonstrably present, but at other times it is sometimes better for leadership to be quieter, to step back and allow others to take the centre stage. This kind of temporary and deliberate ‘invisibility’ of top managers is useful in enabling the development of leadership at all levels. Essentially, as Lao Tse indicates ‘…when the best leaders’ work is done, the people say, “We did it ourselves!”…’ Hence in the effective management of educational sectors, areas of work and institutions, there is no one rule that always holds fast for every situation. Contextual appropriacy in response, flexibility and spontaneity are vital to ensure that operations are well managed and services succeed.

The complexity of modern institutional settings means that an awareness of systemic operations can be critical in recognising the need for deeper analysis of longer-term problems than just knee-jerk reactions to crises.

The model of ‘negative capability’ in relation to leadership that I have developed (Jameson, 2015) proposes that leaders resist the ‘false necessity’3 of hasty conclusions in uncertain situations. The model suggests that leaders set aside time to manage unwise emotional reactions to events.

It proposes that leaders should reflect, listen to possible alternative solutions, to gather evidence, and, through a process of agreeing common goals and values, develop improved solutions to problems. This is, essentially, a stoical leadership model of resilience for difficult times. If stoical virtues are practised, the effective development of trustworthy leadership throughout higher and further education enables students to progress in their achievements, to learn, gain valuable qualifications and employment. Such education brings comfort, economic stability, self-confidence and relief to those who are struggling in difficult times.

– To build trust and shared knowledge of values-based leadership in communities of practice;
– To use emerging technologies for sharing authentic learning opportunities;
– To find improved leadership and e-leadership solutions in higher, further and vocational education.

Key collaborators
Professor Dick N’gambi, University of Cape Town. Professor Vivienne Bozalek, University of the Western Cape. Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker, University of Birmingham. Professor Kevin Orr, University of Huddersfield. Professor Paul Gibbs, Middlesex University. Hugh Joslin, University of Greenwich, UK. Sharon Smith, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK.

– Society for Research into Higher Education;
– British Educational Research Association;
– British Journal of Educational Technology;
– Association of Colleges;
– Linking London.

– Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, UK;
– Economic and Social Research Council for the ESRC HIVE-PED Seminar Series;
– Joint Information Systems Committee;
– Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Social media
– Research Gate profile:
– LinkedIn:
– Twitter: @jjameson
– Google Scholar profile: J&hl=en

Jill Jameson has two MAs from the University of Cambridge and Goldsmith’s College, both in the UK, as well as a further MA and PhD in Computers in Education from King’s College London, UK. She is Principal Investigator for the 2013–16 Economic and Social Research Council Research Seminars Project on Higher Vocational Education and Pedagogy (HIVE-PED) in England. She leads a group of professors and expert academics/practitioners and policy makers from around the world.

1 Jameson, J. (2006). Leadership in Post-Compulsory Education: Inspiring Leaders of the Future. David Fulton/Routledge.
2 Jameson, J. (2015) Trust, the Visibility/Invisibility Leadership Paradox, and a Model for Reflective Negative Capability in the Academic Management of English Higher Education. Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, Wales: This work builds on a considerable prior literature, on leadership and management, including, e.g. Simpson, P., French, R. & Harvey, C. (2002) Leadership and Negative Capability. Human Relations, 55 (10): 1209–1226.
3 Unger, R. M. (2007) The self awakened: Pragmatism unbound. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press.

Professor Jill Jameson
Professor of Education and Director, Centre for Leadership and Enterprise
University of Greenwich
Tel: +44 (0)208 331 8058


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