Authentic, sustainable leadership

Is there a future for the brilliant, solo, and mostly male, transformative VET leader?

John Mitchell’s ‘Inside VET’ column in Campus Review, 18 Nov 2008

As the VET sector moves towards an uncertain future, there will be an increased need for effective leadership. But what will be the nature of this leadership?

That question was addressed by a group of thirty women leaders who participated in the VET women leaders’ forum in the Yarra Valley in mid-2008. Following the forum, twelve of the participants wrote think pieces on leadership. I then incorporated these writings in a publication that was released by IBSA last week.

The publication concludes with a paper by Professor Elizabeth Harman, Vice-Chancellor,VictoriaUniversity, on women taking the lead in post-compulsory education.

The authors of the think piece examined how future leadership in VET could be either authentic or sustainable or both, to enable VET leaders to develop their own workforces and build responsive training organisations.

The title of the think piece written by Ruth Browne, director corporate strategy, Pivot Point Australia, contains Shakespeare’s advice “This above all: To thine own self be true” and she subsequently explains what this means in her work. “When embarking on any process within the VET sector I must first of all be completely comfortable about my purpose and role and be assured that I am operating from my own true self.

“When we use a façade to present the ‘expected face’ to the world there is a little voice inside us that soon challenges our directions and decisions. I must feel that what I am doing is a true reflection of what I believe as the best course of action, aimed at producing the best results for our clients, students and staff.”

A recurring theme in the think pieces is that there are strong connections between sustainability in the sense of being determined to succeed and authenticity in the sense of being true to your convictions. For instance, Belinda McLennan, CEO Tasmanian Polytechnic, learnt from her experience in VET to become a more determined driver of change and to develop survival skills at the senior level – “to plough on despite criticism if I am convinced and able to convince others of the efficacy of my plan”.

She now champions what she thinks is right for the organisation, while being as transparent and fair as possible, although this is a difficult balancing act. “Being true to your convictions and taking account of the human aspects of the situation is one of the hardest juggling roles of leadership.”

She believes this juggling by leaders draws on both sustainability – “move on with determination once alternative options have been considered and an approach committed to, with the right checks and balances in place” – and authenticity – “conviction about the right course of action, consistent with personal values, with doses of persistence, empathy and considered risk-taking”.

For McLennan the “ingredients” of sustainable and authentic leadership include “a vision that matters to people and confidence in my capacity to articulate it and build commitment to it in others, because it matters and because it’s achievable”.

Implications for VET

There are a number of implications of this publication for the VET sector. The first implication is that it is possible for ideas leadership in VET to be wrested away from what one contributor calls “mainstream thinking”. The fresh, individual views of VET leaders in this publication show that educators do have the capacity to construct new ideas.

The second implication relates to future leadership development programs in VET. These programs need to reject once and for all the image of the brilliant, solo, and mostly male, transformative VET leader, and replace it with the image of a leader who liberates others, as articulated in Leadership for the Disillusioned by professor Amanda Sinclair from theUniversity ofMelbourne. Her book was critiqued at the May forum and provided a reference point for the think pieces.

The third implication of these think pieces relates to workforce development programs within training organisations. If training organisations are to be sustained, such programs need to place more emphasis on career planning and succession planning, argue a number of the think piece authors.

Finally, the think pieces could have positive implications for the confidence levels of VET leaders who are facing unprecedented pressures. This confidence is modelled by Pam Christie, Institute Director, TAFE NSW Sydney Institute, who says she is still very much enjoying the leadership ofAustralia’s largest training organisation.

Despite the vast changes about to envelope VET, she remains enthusiastic. “I have many challenges ahead and a great deal of learning to look forward to as an authentic leader”.