Anti-Hero and the Dancing Princess: Social Purpose Leadership

Age brings wisdom, so the saying goes, and perhaps the moderation of aspiration.  Here at TeachNorthern we’ve revised our expectations of success down from ‘changing the world‘ to ‘changing education‘ (we don’t lack ambition).  In a country where children and adults are systematically encouraged to be mediocre and no-one seems to notice, it seems at least possible that the one can change the other.

It certainly feels as though ideological battles are raging across the zeitgeist.  There’s evidence of some savage rearguard action as established, unquestioned binaries are interrogated and discarded.  After the fall of Lehman Brothers, the Scottish Referendum and a million other culture-shocks, status quos which have been in place since the Industrial Revolution have finally started to shift.

It feels apocalyptic, which makes it a time for heroes.  But, as Richard Wilson reveals in his very readable book Anti-Hero, in (what I’m optimistically thinking of as) the late-capitalist era, leadership needs to change too.  Wilson argues that we are so culturally bought into the idea of the heroic leader (Aragorn, Mel Gibson in Braveheart, my own particular favourite Captain Vimes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) that we simply can’t see any alternative more radical than, say, Mulan.   images

Instead, Wilson introduces us to the anti-hero, who operates very differently and – crucially – can be inspirational at any level of an organisation. He cites the famous integrity of Warren Buffet, numerous public and private service organisations and, closer to home, the glorious Lynne Sedgmore as examples of anti-heroes, sold on transformational, organisational learning and tuned into the realities of fighting complex problems in a changing world.

Anti-heroes see the world in shades of grey.  Their nuanced communication is the antithesis of the heroic leaders’ certainties; their emotional intelligence more subtle. They know that sometimes you can’t just fix things; all you can do is keep talking…and listening.  This is where the Thinking Environment comes in, a series of simple, radical practices which expose truths and perspectives, enabling honest decisions to be made.  According to Wilson, anti-heroes bring a whole new set of skills to the party:  “Things like holding paradoxical views and an ability to operate simultaneously at the strategic and the practical level.” (p.39)  This skills-set challenges traditional organisational hierarchies, where, as Thinking Environment pioneer Nancy Kline points out, the expectation of obedience increases as salary levels rise and strategic thinking is the preserve of only the most senior.  No wonder hugely bureaucratic organisations, often public bodies, sometimes with the best of intentions, find it difficult to know how to change.  Facing some of the most significant adaptive challenges of the age, they struggle with moribund structures which place the certainties of heroic leadership in the driving seat.  As Louise Casey’s report into the governance of Rotherham Council uncovered, no amount of brave whistle-blowers can force action when there is a defensive fortress of ‘certainty’ at the top.

Anti-heroes sometimes get there after a painful period of heroic leadership brings reflexive clarity.  For me, the experience of stepping into the chair of directors at SYFAB with half-formed anti-hero ideas and quickly capitulating into the heroic model was salutary.  I never will be able to turn back the clock and thank goodness SYFAB survived my ‘from the top’ ministrations. But I’d do things differently now.  Anti-hero decisions may sometimes take a little longer, if the context is right for collective responsibility, but the practice is not warm and fuzzy, as maybe I thought at the time.  Anti-heroes are as bold and brave as any hero of legend; Nigel Cutts uses the word ‘rigour’ in his book ‘Love at Work‘, to describe the tough love which responsible incisive decisions need.

Most organisations don’t have a space marked ‘anti-hero’ and it’s a lonely place to be, even for anti-heroes at the ‘top’. Rotherham MP Sarah Champion talks here about how she was literally and verbally kept out of Rotherham Council as she tried to investigate child sexual exploitation in the town.  Normally the local MP has enough privilege to open every door.  Even in benign organisations, not understanding the nature of anti-hero leadership can result in tension, unhappiness and stifled creativity.  One of the features of the anti-hero is that they can drive ideas leadership from every level and that can feel very threatening to those climbing the hierarchical ladder.  Anti-heroes are often seen as mavericks or, as Richard Wilson puts it, ‘madmen’.

In further education, it’s hard to see how the currently prevailing model of leadership can do other than lead the sector into the abyss.  The Education and Training Foundation are championing the anti-hero model in the form of support for ‘distributed’ or, as described above, ‘ideas’ leadership.  This really matters, because they are putting money into the campaign as well as political clout (some of it is sponsoring the Social Purpose Leadership Seminar at Northern College on 3rd March 2015).  FE has got itself tangled up in capitalism and the language of its leadership often bears no resemblance to the transformational potential of education, especially when expansion is promoted without reference to any values-base (Saudi Arabia? Really?) The justification, of course, is ‘survival’.  But at any cost?

The Dancing Princesses movement has a siren call:  ‘Dance With Us’.  Emerging from a book written (largely) by teachers in FE, a rarity in itself, the movement speaks as “educators who have not got cynical”. The Dancing Princesses have found spaces to dance across many years of squeeze in education’s ‘Cinderella-sector’.  I’m proud to be a part of it, not least because of its fierce and relentless optimism. (Most) people are good, believe the Princesses, and education will find its way back to the light. But the battle won’t be won without anti-heroes and I recognise anti-heroic qualities in many of the princesses, whether published or not: unconventional, paradox-welcoming, nuanced, values-led, non-binary, emotionally intelligent, fighters for educational freedom.

Will we prevail?  I’ve given myself five years to find out.  Dance with us?


Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

7 thoughts on “Anti-Hero and the Dancing Princess: Social Purpose Leadership”

  1. There is much to read and take in. I do believe that those with power find it difficult to mke changes, knowing ‘How’.
    This information has been beautifully written, and with much thought.
    Although I found it easy reading, I needed my dictionary by my side; learning more about academic writing, and because I needed to look up certain words, I will remember them.
    Thank you for posting this, I have learned much.

    1. That’s interesting. The word ‘trickster’ immediately elicited a negative feeling, but then I remembered how much I have always loved the idea of the harlequin, of Pan, of the dancing jester. To dance means to disrupt the air, to harness and extend the rhythm. Things can’t stay the same. I’ll be reading this!

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