Coaching & Leadership Development
May 7, 2019

Is there a place for Vulnerability as a MAT CEO?

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.


Meeting the needs of MAT CEO’s


Our school leaders and teachers are involved in creating new and emboldened futures for our children and young people. However, we believe, with the ever-increasing pace of change in our schools, true and sustained educational excellence can only be achieved when the need to provide a first-class education for our young is accompanied by the need to meet the emotional, mental and vocational wellbeing of those who teach them.


Our children deserve nothing less than the best, but this can only be achieved when the hearts and minds of our school leaders and teachers are also nurtured and cared for.


We know that there are many Academy Trusts across the country who believe this too. That’s why we work with MAT CEOs to help them overcome the inherent challenges of building and leading in a MAT, so that they can create a family of schools that are characterised by…


– Open, constructive and honest communication

– High levels of emotional resilience and capacity for overcoming challenges

– Humanity, compassion and a deep commitment to the MAT’s vision and values

– A true love for learning in which personal transformation is possible

– Strong, supportive and nurturing relationships


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