Sir Charlie and the King - Excellence in Leadership
09 Nov 2020
We were delighted when our CEO David Gallagher was asked by WorldSkills UK to contribute to its collection of essays on skills excellence, with other authors consisting of education & skills luminaries such as Former Skills Minister, the Rt Hon Anne Milton, Dr Susan James Relly from Skope and the foreword written by Minister for Apprenticeships & Skills, Gillian Keegan MP. We were told that David’s piece was quite distinct from the others, and on reading it, you’ll see why. A very different and personal look at Excellence in Leadership, and the experiences which have shaped his views on it – including Sir Charlie and the King. Intrigued? You should be!
Upon being asked if I would write an article on excellence in technical education it initially got me thinking, ‘What can I possibly say about it? I’m not a teacher or, an academic. I’m a leader in education but surely, others are better placed than me!’ After those momentary thoughts of self-doubt, my thinking turned to, ‘Ok, so what do I know about? Where can I add value? Have I ever been up close and personal to excellence? And from this, what can I share that might help others?’ And that’s when the kernel of an idea for this essay came to me. Excellence and Leadership.
Don’t be put off, this wasn’t a self-indulgent and self-congratulatory moment of believing that my leadership was, or is, excellent, as I’m still very much in the early stages of that particular journey! It was on the basis that I’ve benefitted massively from working with, listening to and learning from truly exceptional leaders throughout my career.
And here I suppose is the first lesson in how leadership can stifle excellence. Ego. We’ve all got one. And yours can squash others. I know mine has at times. Manage yours as best you can. And ask others to help. I literally ask that colleagues tell me when they think my lofty organisational altitude is starving my brain of the oxygen necessary to maintain an appropriate level of grounded’ness. Also be careful of false modesty. Its disingenuous nature can make people queasy and uneasy.
My experience has taught me that for excellence to prevail, a culture of excellence is required. And as I’ve always thought that it’s true what they say about ‘culture coming from the top (of an organisation)’, what better topic than Excellence and Leadership.
By this point, I’d sold the idea to myself. Emboldened, I decided. Excellence and Leadership it would be.
These initial musings got me to thinking about experiences that had shaped my views on leadership. My mind was drawn towards two contrasting, yet reconcilable mindsets that I believe that leaders need to carefully balance in their endeavours to engender excellence – self-efficacy and self-doubt.
The Odd Couple – Part 1
In 2017, I was a little surprised to find myself at the CMI Presidents Dinner at a rather swanky London venue. Not bad for a boy from Boro (Middlesbrough, for you non-football fans!) without a degree, I remember thinking to myself. The event was memorable. Firstly, standing 10 yards away from HRH Prince Philip as he gave one of his final addresses before retiring from public life. Then listening to Sir Charlie Mayfield’s after dinner speech which completely changed my perspective on leadership and something that holds so many back in achieving their life’s ambitions - self-doubt. We’ll come back to this after exploring the other half of these oddly related outlooks.
Long before I knew what the term self-efficacy meant, I knew what self-efficacy meant. I vividly remember my Dad saying to me before many a football game when I was young, ‘If you think you’re going to lose, you’ll lose… ’ with that good old reverse psychology style that many a parent adopts. At the same sort of time in my life I seemed to be learning the art of visioning, without really knowing that I was doing it. Like many kids, I’d imagine myself smashing in a goal in a Wembley final or, beating my brothers and sisters at Monopoly or, winning the 100m race on Sports Day. In fact, as I think back, I must have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about winning something. Anything, in fact. I feel that I was incredibly fortunate to be born with the mindset that I could positively affect my future. Although nurturing parents and merciless siblings certainly played their part too.
Looking back I can now see so many environmental ingredients that played a part in my self-efficacy. Seeing what excellence looked like in so many situations. Playing and learning both with or without pressure. Learning how to lose. Winning and craving more. Positive, confident role models around me. People who would take the time to listen, to explain and to guide. Feedback, both reassuring and at times, brutally harsh. Knocks, falls, trips and slips but nearly always knowing that I was safe in my surroundings.
Ironically, at the peak of my sporting excellence (which was no Everest I might add, maybe a big hill!) when I was surrounded by outstanding individuals within a successful team (as measured by the Win, Draw, Lose columns), my confidence and self-efficacy fell to an all-time low. To this day, I’ve never fully put my finger on why this was. Maybe it was the belief that so many others were much better than me. Maybe the feeling that some of the team didn’t have my back. Maybe distractions at home and school played their part. Plus, I’m sure that my rubbish diet didn’t help. Maybe it was all of the above, and more. +
Towards the end of this experience I’d completely given up on my footballing dream. The visioning went at around the same time. Dreams of obtaining a level of excellence in anything I did faded into obscurity. I get the sense that this happens to most people at different stages of their lives and maybe many times over. Dreams are forgotten and not always replaced. Without dreams there isn’t a picture of a better future. And that’s why I think it’s crucial that leaders and coincidentally, educators, help people to dream. Even more importantly, help those dreams to be realised.
Whatever the reasons for the decline of my belief in a better future, the experience later taught me that excellence could be hard to understand, hard to obtain and arguably, even harder to sustain. When I look back at what cultivated or compromised my self-efficacy when I was young, it seems just as pertinent now in business and in leadership.
The Odd Couple – Part 2
So, back to self-doubt and my night with Sir Charlie and the King (well, sort of. It sounds better). Most of my career, I’d heard leaders and those who I looked up to say things like; ‘Believe in yourself’, ‘You can do it’ and ‘Have no doubts’. This built on my childhood of hearing; ‘Be strong’, ‘Get up, run it off’ and ‘Get over it’. Confidence was strength. Without supreme confidence and strength surely becoming a high-achiever was out of reach. Or, maybe not! Maybe this was just part of the recipe for success.
As Mr Mayfield’s speech unfolded it completely blew my mind. The secret ingredient in his success? You guessed it. Self-doubt. Just the right amount of self-doubt. My instant scepticism was quickly replaced by a feeling that what I was about to hear would change my world view. And in the process, I’d get to understand myself that little bit better. Of course, by this time I understood that a healthy dose of self-awareness never goes amiss in the pursuit of excellence! So, I fully tuned in.
Sir Charlie went on to describe how, for as long as he could recall, he’d always had a little self-doubt. Was he good enough? Was he well prepared enough? Would others be better? What if he got it wrong? But, contrary to the popularly held belief, this had played a key role in enabling his incredible success, not inhibiting it. Interestingly, he also said that for most of his career he’d felt that he needed to hide this self-doubt. How many do the same, to their detriment, I wonder. He went on to elaborate about how he’d used his doubts to improve and achieve. To focus his preparations. To push himself to work harder. To think ahead. To better himself. What he didn’t say, but I felt, was that it had also helped to keep him humble, his feet on the ground. A leadership characteristic that in my view, can help to distinguish the great from the good. Unlike so many who simply ignore or mask their self-doubt, Sir Charlie Mayfield had turned this oh-so-common ‘flaw’ into a performance enhancing strength. Genius!
This speech was an epiphany for me in more ways than one. As I reflected on this line of thinking over the following days it helped me start to feel at ease with my doubts. I allowed them to surface in my mind and I suppose I started to make peace with them. I started to see that openness to being vulnerable just makes you more human. And leaders need to be more human. I started to think about how self-efficacy and self-doubt were both crucial characteristics of great leadership and how I could go about finding the right balance between these rather contradictory characteristics. I thought about embracing strength and weakness. I thought about me a bit and I believe that I became more self-aware in the process. I thought about others and how their self-limiting beliefs were likely to be holding them back from fulfilling their potential. I thought ‘what a waste’. I started thinking about what I could do about it.
So let me take you back even further. It’s the year 2000 and the name is Eric Moussambani Malonga. Now there’s a name I bet you struggle to place. But if you were of an age to remember the Summer Olympics of 2000, you might just remember the nickname "Eric the Eel". In a nutshell, Eric won brief international fame due to an extremely unlikely victory. Having never previously seen an Olympic-sized swimming pool prior to his heat of the 100m freestyle, Eric won his heat. Admittedly, it was after both his competitors were disqualified due to false starts, but it doesn’t take away any of the romance of the story. Unfortunately Moussambani's time was too slow to advance to the next round, but he did set a new personal best and an Equatoguinean national record in the process. In doing so he also won the admiration and adoration of millions of people from across the world. His courage, tenacity and sense of joy in participating was truly inspiring.
Whilst most of us simply love a good underdog story, this isn’t the point of this heart-warming reminiscence. Unsurprisingly, given the topic of this essay it’s again about excellence. It’s about the importance of access to ‘striving for excellence’ opportunities for everyone, whatever their starting point. Because that in itself can be the spark that ignites the ambitions of countless others who don’t realise that it’s for them too. It’s about recognising that the achievement of a ‘Personal Best’ could and should be more meaningful than taking home the Gold. It’s about taking inspiration from those brave people who are willing to ‘give it a go’ when the odds are so heavily stacked against them. And we need more inspiration in our leadership, for our educators and in our education system as a whole right now. It’s about calling out that whilst our traditional means of assessing excellence, in this instance a medal, can be hugely motivating and entirely appropriate, it’s not the only way in which excellence should be measured and recognised. Success can be subjective. Achievement deeply personal. In the words of the late and great educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, we should, ‘recognise people’s individuality, recognise the great diversity and depth of people’s talents, recognise that people are full of boundless possibilities...’
On examining Eric’s endeavours I found enlightenment for excellence in education. And these words are for leaders, educators and learners alike. When you get an opportunity to excel, take it. And enjoy it. You might feel out of place, but you can almost guarantee others do too, so save the blushes. The reality is, you’ve probably earned the chance, so make the most of it. Secondly, your most ‘worthy rival’ (as Simon Sinek would describe it) might just be you. In a world where there are too many destructive and divisive rivalrous games, shifting the focus from outdoing others to outdoing yourself could liberate you from losing. Free you from false applause for your rivals. And bring back humanity to competition. Maybe, finding camaraderie with your competitors, whether in sport, business or life, can help to bridge many of the divides that we see in the world today. So, choose yourself as your benchmark. Then better yourself. Every day, if you can. A better you, makes a better world.
The Art and Soul
So, what does all this mean for leading excellence? I’ll start in the abstract and work towards something more actionable.
If management is the science, then leadership is the art and culture is the soul. If you want a culture of excellence, you’ve got to understand and nurture all three.
Before we get into this, it’s worth noting that; leadership is not management and management is not leadership. But, they both need each other to be effective. See countless articles on the subject for further clarification, should you so need.
So, first to management - standards, benchmarks, targets, measures, data, processes, formulas… these things are of crucial importance in establishing what success looks like and knowing when you’ve got there. In codifying and quantifying excellence. Trust the science! But don’t live under the illusion that science alone will create exceptional results.
Turning to leading for excellence the words of the famous business and leadership guru, Peter Drucker seem most relevant; ‘Leadership is lifting a person's vision to high sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.’
A vision is a picture of a better future. And who doesn’t want that? ‘Beyond normal limitations’, isn’t that why we’re in education in the first place. Drucker speaks to a higher cause. Have you got sight of yours? Purpose, vision, values and beliefs are not just a suite of management speak tags, they truly are the characteristics that need clarity and cultivation for a culture of excellence to flourish. Within them I find my inspiration and my cause - excellence in education for everyone. If you haven’t done so already, hopefully these words will help you to find yours too.
You can read the full collection of essays here.