Leadership – should you be like Cnut?

After Gordon Tredgold’s talk at the University recently, I have been struck by the number of colleagues who attended, who have really enagaed with his approach, FAST – focus, accountable, simple and transparent. it’s great to be working with people who taken this on board and there have been lots of comments and conversations on Twitter and a lot of follow-up activity. So here’s my contribution – lead like Cnut.

Cnut_the_Great_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI(from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cnut_the_Great_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI.jpg)



Cnut (also known as Canute) was a king of England in 1016 and King of Denmark in 1018 If history had been slightly different he could have laid the foundations of a major English – Scandinavian alliance, but for his sons dying early and those pesky Normans invading England.

Wikipedia states:

Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King”.[95] This incident is usually misrepresented by popular commentators and politicians as an example of Cnut’s arrogance.


If I chose to willfully misunderstand the story or myth, I’d be writing to say that as leaders we can operate in such a way that ignores the environment in which we are in, and blithely carry on, thinking that we know better. Some of the big challenges that face all universities are: the neo-liberal funding regime; the current debate on immigration; the changes in technology for learning and teaching; the accessibility of open data to make judgments about institutions by students and other stakeholder and the rising tide of social media that cannot be stopped but must be harnessed, to name but a few..

But to represent Cnut correctly, he is aware of the ” tide in the affairs of men”, and recognises he has to respond, and sharpish.

Leadership is being able to recognise those tides, the changes and the challenges “which taken at the flood, lead on to fortune”.

Linking this back to Gordon –

Can we identify exactly what our focus should be in a rapidly changing environment? Cnut knew – it was to recognise the greater forces around him and to respond quickly.

Leaders need to hold themselves accountable. Cnut knew he had to take responsibility and get out of the way, but more importantly he had to show his courtiers, his team, that he was able to move and make a change in response to his environment..

Can we make our message about how we are dealing with complex changes, simple and easy to understand? Cnut made his point, but his legacy is of being misunderstood – maybe he needed to do a bit more on the messaging front.

Are we being transparent about what we are doing?  If we are focused on the right things, people will become more motivated, especially if we can ensure that the attractiveness of success is greater than the resistance to change. Resistance to change for Cnut meant getting wet feet. Cnut wanted his team to focus on moving quickly from the incoming tide and  to show that we need to respond to our environment.

I’m fully aware of the running joke in this piece – it’s deliberate. You’ll remember it better this way.


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