Is there a place for Vulnerability as a MAT CEO?

This blog comes from the Chief Executive Officer of Folio Education Trust, Jonathan Wilden

People’s immediate answer to whether vulnerability is a suitable trait for a CEO would probably be absolutely not. Under no circumstances should a successful leader show any form of weakness. 
However, I feel this is too simple an understanding of what ‘vulnerability’ means in the context of leadership. Rather than translating as “showing weakness”, I believe vulnerability can be better understood as a human characteristic that involves being more open, more sensitive and at times becoming a more acquiescent leader, to allow the actions of others to develop and prevail.
Jim Collins in his description of a Level 5 leader, describes an individual who displays both ‘humility’ and ‘will’ – both of which are key elements of vulnerability and are two traits with which I have tried to build my professional career upon.
Certainly being ‘human’ and embedding empathy within our decision making could be interpreted as a softer more vulnerable side of leadership, which can bring more positive change and motivation from those that we lead.
I think that there is a strong human trait and a sense of vulnerability which is present in the best and most effective CEOs. As Jim Collins describes in his book ‘Good to Great’, there is nothing wrong with a Level 4 ‘effective’ leader who drives towards a clear and compelling vision, but they can lack that personal humility which can effectively compliment a professional will present in the vast majority of CEOs.
I suppose those interested in becoming a Level 5 CEO must ask themselves can they be confident enough to be effective in a vulnerable state, which may if deployed properly bring about the marginal gains of outstanding leadership.
By letting go of ego and holding oneself up to serve others we display a self-imposed vulnerability which can be very effective.
The key to success and effective leadership is knowing how to engage with one’s own vulnerability. For example, when embarking on something new, it is important that feelings of vulnerability are mediated, to allow courage, hope and optimism to shine through. Be the ice breaker at the front of the ship and do not allow those around you to concern themselves with the stresses and strains of focused, visionary leadership.
You are the buffer, the champion of change and cannot afford to step off the journey to success or face the road to ruin where others may doubt you and question why things are done in a particular way. This position not only takes commitment and endeavour but a continual collaborative effort from other influential leaders within a MAT.  Where all senior leaders adopt the outward facing, shared narrative of success.
CEOs within educational organisations such as MATs are there to be the rock on which the organisation is built and so we need to understand how our own vulnerabilities impact upon how steady we feel in our own role, at times.  They must lead and influence others staying true to the shared vision, regularly reminding others of the core purpose and their role within it.
However, there will be times when feelings of vulnerability, will undoubtedly be present, but they cannot be allowed to scupper actions and decisions that are in the best interest of all of our children. E.g. When …
– Judging the performance of other professionals within the organisation.
– Assisting a failing teacher, offering an opportunity to change or be removed as they display an attitude of either ‘can’t do’ (capability) or ‘won’t do’ (disciplinary).
Whichever the case a CEO must permeate through the organisation a sense of urgency when expecting all staff to drive towards the professional competencies or Job Description outlined in their appraisal booklets and referred to in performance management meetings.
So in reflecting back on the original question, is there a place for vulnerability in the role of a CEO I think the answer is yes as there are certainly occasions when leaders need to show a blend of both ‘personal humility’ an ‘professional will’ and therefore embrace both the power and the threat of vulnerability. However, as for the place itself, for when to display these qualities – well that depends on the context, and the timing.


COVID 19 – The Challenges of Leading a MAT in times of Uncertainty


Even at the best of times, MATs face a number of issues as they seek to raise and maintain standards across their family of schools.

In my experience, challenges typically centre around relationships, people management and harnessing experience and skills within their team for the collective good.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak has presented MAT CEO’s with an unprecedented array of challenges. The implications of which are far-reaching and will have transformed most aspects of academy life.
Consequently, for many, this period of intense transition and uncertainty has been characterised by feelings of anxiety, doubt and worry. The impact of which is still very much in evidence across all levels of our school communities.
Whilst staff navigate new ways of working and indeed new relationships with one another, attention still needs to be given to new systems, roles, policies and practices that will shape the ‘new normal’.
Amidst all of this, what mustn’t be forgotten is that Executive Leadership in these times has been traumatic for many. Many a CEO has had to had to carry a huge emotional weight and work extended hours to ensure that no stone had been left unturned. It has not been easy.
Time to properly process, unpick and formulate a strategic response to the wide range of issues that have arisen has been in short supply.
Executive Leaders need time to consider the impact this crisis has had across their communities, so they can reflect in depth on the foundations that need to be put in place to support their leaders, staff and pupils alike when they return in September.
It is for this reason, we are now offering free 30 minute 1:1 MAT Executive Leadership Sessions. 
These sessions are designed to provide MAT CEOs with a strategic planning space where executive leaders can:
– Develop a deeper insight into the impact and key learnings from the last few months, personally and professionally
– Find solutions to fit your current context and challenges faced
– Consider new ways of working and internal system change that will be needed to accommodate life in the ‘new normal’
– Build a greater understanding of your support and well-being needs of both themselves and their school community
– Identify the best strategies for strengthening relationships with colleagues and the wider community

Learn More


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