Social Purpose Leadership: A New Hope by Lou Mycroft


“No future is achieved until it is first imagined.”

                                                          Ashcroft, 2016 


There’s a strong argument for crediting Machiavelli – and his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci – with fashioning a leadership template which dominates education in the UK to this day.  In grafting together Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ and Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ a hero is born, a David Beckham of his time, a logical űber-human against whom the rest of us are measured and found to be ‘other’. In Europe at least, the ‘natural order’ saw the heroic leader ensconced firmly at the top; there by merit rather than birth, his pursuit of knowledge bringing the desired freedom and happiness of ‘Enlightenment’.  As feminist, postcolonial and posthuman thinkers point out, this adoption of Vitruvian Man as the symbol of ultimate human perfection provided philosophical fertiliser for centuries of oppression and colonization, based on ‘othering’ everyone who by reason of gender, skin colour, economic value or other privilege could not aspire to Vitruvian status.  

The stories that survive are those that win the floor. There is another Enlightenment genealogy, one which was obscured for nearly three centuries:  Baruch Spinoza, survivor of the Dutch ‘year of disaster’ in 1672, revived by Gilles Deleuze and others at their renegade university Paris 8 during the late 1960s.  In these contemporary, perhaps revolutionary, times, Richard Wilson claims that, “our historical way of leading just doesn’t work any more” (2015).  This chapter imagines how a different kind of leadership – one based on the Spinozean notion of potentia, rather than potestas – could ignite profound change in further and adult education.

According to Rosi Braidotti (2015), potestas is “politics as usual”, the leadership style inherited from Machiavelli; ultimately a negative, regressive force as it works hardest of all to maintain the power differential of the norm. Potentia, on the other hand, offers possibilities, producing resistance to the status quo particularly when energies are combined around an affirmative project: an event, an exhibition, an Utopian vision.  Potestas works via strongly rooted hierarchies; potentia via organic, rhizomatic networks.

The new millennium has seen the pace of change quicken in education; collateral damage is the morale of an workforce which has largely withdrawn its goodwill.  Traditional heroic-model leaders, caught up in managerialist structures, have their energies drained by dragging demotivated staff along behind them.  The notion of an heroic, charismatic leader is, of course, highly seductive; someone with a vision who can not only persuade followers out of their ennui but can successfully win the day.  When the future for education – and its jaded workforce – seems so uncertain, it is not hard to understand why the heroic leader clings on in the hope of a return to more abundant times.  Yet, even 20 years ago, Noam Chomsky was arguing that, rather than looking for heroes, “…we should be looking for good ideas.” (1993).  More recently, Wilson’s work around a new anti-hero metaphor (2015) offers potentia, separating leadership from management and distributing it firmly in the lap of the entire workforce.  Anti-heroes sit tight in zones of new tension, ready to capitalise on fresh opportunities, ready to offer and act upon ‘good ideas’.  Anti-heroes think, allowing “newness [to] come into the world” (Rushdie, 1988).The thesis is not hard to grasp: heroic leadership has had its day.  Why do we persist in applying its simple logic to an increasingly complex world? How can we foster a climate in education, where Wilson’s anti-hero approach can take root?

 Wilson’s concept of the anti-hero finds a welcome in social purpose education, a democratic pedagogy based on transformational principles originally laid down by hooks (2003) and Freire (1972).  Social purpose education, based on four cornerstones of practice, is concerned with developing students’ agency in order to recognise and challenge prevailing power relations, a process Freire names as “conscientization”. We suggest that the collective low-self esteem of the teaching profession in the UK, particularly the fractured workforce of further, adult, community and skills education, needs social purpose leadership in order to conscientize its own agency and bring about change.  The model we propose is a leadership of hope and potentia; working at the margins of what is possible, inspired by differently imagined futures:  digital, dialogic and democratic. 


Social Purpose Digital Leadership

Digital means access to knowledge on an unprecedented scale and a disturbance to the power structures of old, so that material which was once only available to privileged groups is now open to anyone with access to the internet.  It means networks and connecting across traditional demarcation lines of geography, race and class.

Different voices are amplified in different real and virtual spaces (Mycroft and Weatherby, 2014).  Digital allows greater access for people from marginalised groups to not only find information for themselves, unfiltered by the paternalism of others, but also to shape the telling of their own stories.  As Arundhati Roy writes, “…there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” (2004).  Digital platforms such as Media Diversified (2016) generate potentia; working to resist what Toni Morrison called the “solitary heroes” stereotype of writers of colour, accelerating networks which have long existed but had previously operated at a slower pace.  White, male-centred, reading lists and book pricing cartels are exploded by the availability of dissident thinking, supported by open movements such as Creative Commons (Price, 2013) and promoted via social media platforms like Twitter.

Such disruptive energy needs a leadership to suit. The heroic leader finds the potentia of digital life terrifying; he needs to tame its chaos in policy. The anti-hero builds digital resilience; willingly leading and participating in Freirean processes of conscientization in order to address complex challenges, to create diverse alliances which share potentia and draw courage and strength from thinking differently, together.

The first thing that fascists seize, claims Rosi Braidotti, is the curriculum (2016).  The anti-hero anticipates this; she ensures her team has access to the digital capital – resources, resilience, infrastructure, not just kit – which will help them develop cross-subject curricula, fostering critical thinking both for themselves and their students.  Led well, digital is a democratiser.  It is about connectedness to each other, being open to new and disruptive information and the belief that another world is possible.  


Social Purpose Dialogic Leadership

Digital has opened up a myriad of new ways to engage in dialogue with others, unfettered by geographical or social boundaries, once the confidence is there to find a language of mutuality.  Whereas potestas expresses power through a relationship involving domination by one party over others, the concept of potentia sees power as being articulated through a relationship with the whole world.  Dialogue shaped by potentia is shared, open-minded, open-ended and rhizomatic.  In this model, listening (or reading) holds equal status to speaking (or writing).  Heroic leaders may well see their role as that of giving information, issuing dictats or presenting stirring calls to action; anti-heroes understand that careful and deliberative listening is key to thinking and acting differently.  

Dialogic processes such as the Thinking Environment (Kline, 2009), Community Philosophy (Sapere, 2016) and Non-Violent Communication (Rosenberg, 2003) are pro-social; they co-create knowledge and – crucially – new understandings through dialogue. Listening is vital; dialogue needs new thinking too, the courage to go to the very edge of all that is assumed and taken for granted.  It is impossible to be part of working this way without contributing and for many people, this is a terrifying prospect.  But in the boardroom – as in the classroom and everywhere in between – there are silent voices and unspoken thoughts.  The work of anti-heroes is to unlock this creativity.

Potentia is not about finding new ways to do the old; potestas does that job.  Anti-heroes take every opportunity to transcend existing ways of thinking, seeking out diverse perspectives by engaging on equal terms with those whose experience is located outside traditional hierarchies of power.  In this way, dominant discourses can be challenged and overthrown and new possibilities have the chance to emerge (Freire, 1972).


Social Purpose Democratic Leadership

Education’s future relies on a leadership of new ideas and that means challenging old tropes of what democracy means.  Committed as he was to potestas, Machiavelli was certainly not anti-democratic.  He would have been with Spinoza in recognising that ‘universal’ values are in fact the values of the elite.  Machiavelli believed in what we might now call ‘creative tension’: disruption, dissonance and struggle.  None of the dialogic processes described above primarily aim to seek consensus.  That consensus is desirable at all costs – more desirable than messy, dangerous change – has come to be taken for granted in a climate where patterns of compromise hold sway, and where neo-liberal ideology shapes understandings of what is possible.

Anti-heroes provide decision-making spaces which generate new thinking.  The same spaces also contain disagreement, tension and misunderstanding.  Machiavelli would certainly have recognised this as democracy.  He may not have welcomed the smiling faux-democracy on display in many organisations today, where ‘consultation’ abounds but much of the real potestas is hidden from view.  For potentia work to happen, the tooth and claw of democracy needs to be exposed and handled with respect in the decision-making space.  

A democratic leadership of hope also means looking beyond the boundaries of the organisation and contributing to the greater whole: the reimagining of education. In a capitalist economy, the concept of competition has been genetically engineered into the DNA of every public service, but it is still possible to resist.  Potentia work forms alliances, it scans the horizon for possibilities, it recognises that the language we use forms the thinking that we do.  Connecting with others in potentia is the democratic responsibility of the anti-hero.


Conclusion – why a leadership of hope?

Social purpose leadership is not easy work.  Far simpler for everyone concerned to collude in axiomatic thinking: that economic growth is desirable, that a five-day week is ‘full-time’, that some people know better than others.  Not only does the anti-hero have to contend with colleagues holding desperately onto their personal potestas, she also has to unsettle those who don’t want to think.  Culture change takes time and not everyone has an appetite for it.  Endurance is difficult to maintain, when the constant rhetoric of scarcity drives out ease. 

In order to explore new ways of thinking about leadership, we have resorted to false dichotomies.  In truth, as soon as we have any influence, we are all in potestas – politics as usual – all of the time.  Any work which is 100% potentia may be brimful of new possibilities but won’t get a foot in the door.  A good career, according to Rosi Braidotti (2016) is one which is two-thirds potestas and one-third potentia:  get to a place of influence and then get dangerous. Machiavelli would see the wisdom of this.  For the leader of hope, the anti-hero, it seems a reasonable maxim to ensure the longevity to make change happen.

In these hardened, market-led times, what place is there for hope? Isn’t hope, after all, the last resort of the sentimental, the unrealistic and the romantic, the stuff of greeting cards and social media memes, which tritely encourage us to bear our troubles passively and without complaint?  In place of hope, is not potestas-led pragmatism a better bet?  Why, in the face of current challenges for education, should we turn to hope, when “…hope is not victory?” (Ashcroft, 2016).

The reason is that for educators grounded in social purpose practice, the concept of hope is fundamental.  Freire (1972) and hooks (2003) frame hope as intrinsic to transformative practice.  Here, hope is deeply pragmatic and political, because it is hope that allows us to imagine a better, more equal future.  In the potentia work of the anti-heroic leader, “…hope can learn to estimate the opposition,” (Ashcroft, 2016).  It can help us see beyond that which is taken for granted, to the margins of possibility, where we can pool our potentia energy and work dialogically with others for affirmative change.  

This chapter is reproduced from Daley, M. Orr, K. & Petrie, J. (2017). The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE. London: UCL-IOE Press with the kind permission of the author



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