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.


FAST Leadership: Making it Work

Gordon Tredgold of Henkel  (and author of “Leadership: it’s a marathon not a sprint“) spoke today at Staffordshire University about FAST Leadership. (his blog can be found here). I’m always going to enjoy hearing someone explain how they solved problems using data to support their decision making, and Gordon provided some great examples of  data analysis and simplification of planning.

These are my notes, comments, questions and pictures of the event.]


Gordon claims to have been successful by keeping things simple. However, we must not confuse “simple” with “easy”.

Today’s challenge for all organisations is simple – do everything better, faster and cheaper!

tredgold -todayschallenge


We need to look at effectiveness and efficiency, making sure that we are doing the right job, not the wrong one, and making sure that we do that job well.

tredgold - whyfail

It’s crucial to remember that: “Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity”.

The implication here is to make sure that we are focusing on the right things – for instance there is no point in growth of  a business if no money is being made. This translates quite nicely to the business of a university.


The FAST approach to leadership consists of:

  •  FOCUS

tredgold - FAST


We need to understand clearly what it is that we aiming to do. What are our objectives? What does success look like?

Leaders need to do the right things while manager have to do things right.

Organisations tend to try to focus on too many things at once. Not all of them can be priorities, and so organisations do not prioritise properly. Ideally there should be 2 or 3 right things to focus on.

Having identified these key objectives, we must the communicate this clear focus to teams so they can have a clear vision of what success looks like.

Bonuses and reward mechanisms have to be linked to these priorities, so people will know where to focus their efforts. Having too many KPIs is the same thing as having no KPIs.


We need to know who is accountable for doing the work,  who is responsible for doing it and how will you hold them accountable.

A key question for leaders to ask is “Have we told people what we will hold them accountable for?”

We need to hold people accountable for the outcomes, not how they do it.

We need to be clear about accountability for 2 reasons: when successful, we can give rewards; if failing we can give appropriate support. We cannot give support if we don’t know who is accountable, so a clear reporting mechanism is needed.

Leaders need to hold themselves accountable.

If people are made accountable and equipped with right tools they will be successful


Experts tend to make things complex. However, real expertise is about making its simple. If you can understand it then you should be able to explain it simply. We need to challenge people to explain the solution that they are trying to implement.

People often seek and find complexity where there is none.

We need new ways of doing things that are simpler, but remember, simple is not the same as easy


People don’t mind hard work but don’t like to waste effort.

This means that we can motivate our teams if they can see how it leads to success.

We also have to be open and honest about our performance.

If we are  transparent, we  can be accountable and provide  rewards. If 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.

Organisations need to use the data available to make the right decisions.



Question and Answer Session

A couple of key points from the Q&A session

  • Everyone can do a great job, but hey need the right tools and the right authority.
  •  If you don’t want to do a good job then we need another conversation.

I asked a question about simplicity and accountability, but this was a question for us as leaders, not really for Gordon. If we have 13 strategies, some of which are 30 pages long, how can we hope to succeed. Gordon said he was already bored on hearing that there were 13 strategies.

tredgold - efficency


An engaging and authentic talk, from a leader who has really delivered success and change, interestingly using data to support decision making, and in making the priorities really simple for the organisation.

This is a challenge for universities, where we like to think of ourselves as large complex organisations, even if we aren’t that big or complex, but we have developed of culture of complexity. This is not necessarily better.

This could be a time for reflection on our strategic plan, in the light of the changed environment in which we operate, and the identification of what our two or three priorities should be with clearly defined accountabilities.





Annual Survey of HE Leaders

The fifth annual survey of leaders of HEIs in the UK (Charting a winning course – How student experiences will shape the future of higher education) was published today by PA consulting .

The report is summarised as:

“This year’s survey report records the beginnings of a sea-change in the strategic priorities of leaders across the HE system. In place of their historical obsession with the outlook for Government policy and funding, leaders appear to have switched their focus to the competitive battle for fee-paying students and the imperative to offer attractive and rewarding learning experiences. This imperative is driven by the effective demise of grant funding for teaching, coupled with slowing and potentially falling student numbers and increased competition from alternative routes to higher learning.

Sector leaders are unimpressed by predictions that online alternatives will sweep away conventional providers of higher education, expressing confidence in the resilience of the established system to embrace and adapt to new ways of working. Nonetheless, our respondents are united in expecting the emergence of a very different HE system, characterised by a diversity of tailored and student-centred learning experiences delivered through a patchwork of provider partnerships, collaborations and alliances.

Our survey reveals a widespread expectation that not all current providers will survive this disruption, with predictions of institutional failures. There are however few signs of this actually happening. The more likely outcome, in our view, is a radical restructuring of relationships and ventures within and between providers, rather than a widespread shake-out of institutions. “

The greatest worry expressed by HE leaders is around future student demand – not really surprising considering a number of factors such as Changing demographic of UK population, with a reduction of 18yer olds for the next few years and the perceived lack of welcome from the UK towards international students. Over 90% were worried about the decline in UK/EU numbers of postgraduate students, and 80% about international postgraduates. As the report states:

“It is becoming apparent, as the market data increasingly validate these worries, that real competition for students of all types is becoming the major force for change in higher education”

This means that student experience is becoming increasingly important, and an area where universities will seek to differentiate themselves.

90% of respondents said that improving the student experience proposition was among their top three strategic priorities

“Strategic motivations for this priority were, however, polarised between those leaders who regard improved student experiences as primarily a driver of institutional standing (for example as factors in league table ratings or as a source of market distinctiveness) and those who are more concerned to improve students’ learning outcomes and/or employment prospects.”

This is an interesting split.  There is a real danger in being driven just by league tables, and forgetting that they are simply a mirror held up to us to see a reflection of our performance.  While improving our league table position is important, my view is that our focus has to be on improving student experience and outcomes, and allowing this to drive the league table.

To improve experience, many respondents indicated that increased contact with and access to academic staff would be desirable, whilst recognising the cost implications. In my view, this is where an L&T strategy could be designed which would ensure that contact was relevant, and significantly higher for the earlier levels of an award, with a subsequent decrease in the later years, with better use of technology supported learning for the more experienced learners.

It’s interesting to look at the graph below showing the factors that leaders felt inhibited improvements to student experience – cost implications and government or funding policies figure highly.

PA rept4

(from Charting a winning course – How student experiences will shape the future of higher education)


Another interesting finding of the survey was that, after all the hype about MOOCs (previously written about ad nauseam on this blog), many university leaders do not see them as a disruption which could remove established models of higher education. Many did think that the new technologies could lead to new forms of blended learning and blended pathways. Regular readers will know that this would be my take – unless we are all wrong and an avalanche really is coming.

The survey this year has suggested that “HE leaders have little expectation that Government or ‘official’ sector bodies will be central to their future success” and:

“None regarded Government departments or agencies as prime sources of innovative thinking or stimulus for change regarding student experiences (most institutions look first to their own staff and students for new thinking in this area). In this, as in many other regards, it is increasingly apparent that HE leaders no longer see themselves as responsible for delivering public education policies, and are looking to grow their institutions’ futures in a very different, learner-centred market environment.”

Our own university plan reflects this in its focus on partnership with the various key stakeholder groups – of which government is not one.

The outcome of the survey shows the prevailing neo-liberal view of higher education where student outcomes are measured very much in terms of the benefit to the individual student and their individual employment prospects, rather than the benefit that may be gained by society as a whole through their education.

Most HE leaders surveyed though that the sector was going to change in size and shape, with mergers and closures as part of the change. This is similar to previous survey results – which seem to say,” yes there’ll be closures, but it’ll be someone else.” The most anticipated change is in multi-institution partnership, alliances and networks.

PA rept6


(from Charting a winning course – How student experiences will shape the future of higher education)

Overall – the two most interesting things in this report for me are: the emphasis on student experience and how that could be differentiate between institutions; and the view of how some technologies will not be the disruption that others believe.


Leadership in higher education: 14 pieces of food for thought

A useful little article from the Guardian HE network on some leadership tips.

There’s nothing here that might not already have been covered in LFHE courses, or in our own Leading for Success programme.

The article usefully concludes with a summary of desirable leadership qualities:

“Humility, competence, ability to simultaneously ‘own’ issues/stories and still give credit to those who did the hard work. Political skill, both internally and externally, is good . Never losing sight of the bigger picture, the ability to think and act strategically, compassion and a sense of humour”

Leadership in Higher Education – a new publication

An old friend and onetime colleague of mine who publishes a popular blog has written about a recent Leadership Foundation publication on “What do we know about leadership in higher education.”

Dr Greatrix writes that “We seem to be clutching at straws in trying to establish whether there is any evidence for leadership benefiting universities in terms of their core activities:

Evidence of the impact of leadership on the extent and quality of research, learning and enterprise is rather slim.

Moreover, university staff inevitably have contrasting views on what effectiveness means, what its characteristics are and indeed whether individuals can even be described in this way:

What works in one context will not necessarily work ?in another, and equally may be judged as effective? and ineffective in the same context. As in the wider literature, the research generates lists of characteristics ?of effective leaders that are somewhat idealised and apolitical. Oppositional narratives underpin estimates of effectiveness; a rational narrative stresses data-driven, command and control, while an alternative prizes an open- ended and fluid creation of space in which autonomy can flourish. Effectiveness is currently related to individuals, but might be more usefully applied to units.”

This might all be a little depressing, particularly for universities who have invested significant amounts of time and money in leadership development for their senior staff. Personally  I find the short mantra of Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones (authors of “Why Should Anyone be Led by You”) a useful way of viewing leadership – Be Yourself, More, With Skill.