The Dark or Ethical Prince; There Is Always A Choice by Lynne Sedgmore

The presentation ‘ The Dark or Ethical Prince; There Is Always A Choice’ by Lynne Sedgmore was given at Huddersfield University at a conference on Power and Professionalism in Further Education. This conference accompanied the publishing of the book The Principal: Power and professionalism in FE

Lynne Sedgmore
Lynne Sedgmore


The book uses Machiavelli’s famous and infamous ‘The Prince’ as a framework to spark discussions about leadership and professionalism in further education examining agency and how managerial practices impact on the people involved.


Lynne gives an inspiring address as part of the keynote presentations bringing a wealth of experience from various quarters to bear on Machiavellian behaviours within management structures.  She offers us both insight and practical tips on how we can survive ‘Dark Princes’…


Transcript and Annotations

Hi, I was at Liverpool and I cried the first time I saw that. It really moved me because isn’t that what it is all about – the students, that joy of them, and I love them – I grew up with lads like them on a council estate, it just really speaks to me. So, good morning. Great to be hear. It feels exciting. Thank you David – he asked me if I needed a mic, and I think that I was probably one of the only people on teacher training who was asked to lower their voice because ‘she was disturbing the classroom next door’ [laughter]. So can you all hear me ok ?


My sense today is that I am here as a very tiny part of what I believe is a new and vital wave in FE (further education); and I really mean that. In the beginning – not exactly the beginning – but a part of, a part of the journey of the new grassroots resistance, subversive, democratic movement for change in leadership.


Ive spent my career – thirty five years I was in FE trying to bring about liberating, empowering, leadership. At times I think I was getting somewhere, at times I think we bloody failed. On tweeting, I am going to be speaking my truth today, so all I ask you – I don’t care what you tweet on one level – will you please try and make it balanced because I am going to say some things, that if you tweet it, and put it out there…. I am unpopular enough with some people, I don’t need any more grief ok…. [laughter].


So that is my general request, because some things you can quote me and it is going to sound horrendous out there – its like she’s really lost it now, but never mind.


I really just want to speak my admiration for the people who are involved in The Dancing Princesses and The Prince (two books on Further Education). And I have got to mention Joel – I just love that man over there, I tell you. He has got me involved, and I do it with love, and passion, and admiration [applause].


And I also think that David, Anne-Marie, and Kevin are amazing too, and I want to name Steve Exley from the TES (Times Education Supplement); not just because he printed my article yesterday – which I hope you enjoyed. And because I think it is for me, starting to be subversive – not starting to be subversive, Ive been subversive all my career, but really doing what Frank Cofield quoted about ‘really speaking it as it is’, and that is what I want to do today to a level I haven’t done before.


Ok, so that is what I want to do. I am going to start with four questions, and I am going to start with Anne-Marie’s question that opens her conclusion chapter:


What hope for an inspirational radical democratic vision ? She knows much more about that than me, so do you. What might collective democratic, ethical but subversive professionalism look like ? There’s people in the room who can answer that far better than I do, but hell, I will join in with you I thought.


What I am interested in as a practitioner, I’ve got a doctorate, I’m no academic – I did a professional doctorate based on my practice reflecting on my practice – but I am a damn good practitioner. So I am interested in, and going to be talking about today, much more what it is like in action – Is beneficent power possible in FE ?


leadership on the line

Can leaders live their ethics and values ? And – what price is there to pay for trying to do that ? …because there is a huge price. And if you know the work of Heifetz and Linsky on leadership is dangerous, and projection and shadow. So I am going to talk in that role today, which I hope you find valuable


So, who am I, what have I been ? Well, I have been an FE prince, or princess – well actually I’ve been a priestess as well – but I prefer princess. So I’ve been an FE prince, a senior college for 24 years. I was made head of department in 1986. I have been slogging around this sector as a senior leader since time began it feels like – and loving it, and hating it at times.


I’ve been on the receiving end of other princes and princesses, I’ve been a developer of FE princes because I was chief exec of CEL (the national Centre for Excellence in Leadership) – 40,000 leaders came through CEL, people forget that. 40,000 leaders in 4 years. We were doing some interesting stuff there and part of that was getting them to be subversive.


I’ve been a representative of mega – I’m not going to use the word in case you tweet it – begins with ‘m’ – FE princes with serious narcissistic issues as the 157 group CEO (157 Group was started to enable large and successful colleges to speak out on behalf of the sector) and I have been a lobbyist for FE colleges to political princes.


So I have been around, and worked at prime ministerial and ministerial level. And I can tell you now that working for political princes is the toughest, it is the horriblest. It’s …….. at times, you cant tweet that because I never said it.


So I am calling my talk ‘dark or ethical prince, there is always a choice’ because there is. Now that choice may have a huge price attached to it. But that is what I really want to focus on. Does that feel ok folks ?


Two quotes from The Prince, because we hear all about the ‘it is better to be feared than loved’ don’t we, but he also talks about the wise prince taking a third route and looking for wisdom. So I’m going to go into that more because that’s the dance that I am interested in.


So the leadership dance for me is been choosing to remain authentic and ethical, or remaining in my own shadow and darkness. We have all got shadow – you know what I mean by shadow ? We’ve all got dark side; we’ve all got parts of our personality that stink to be honest. Every single one of us has.


The key is whether we work on it and try and transcend it and move beyond it to me. In choosing to use power through, with and for – rather than power over, or being corrupted by power or abusing power. And I think that I was put on this planet as the daughter of a miner – anyone read Sons and Lovers ? That was my dad – the minor who ruled the roost and your whole life revolved around it. I loved him to bits and I fought him from being 2 years old.


So that has been my path. So actually, god knows how I got to the powerful positions I have. Yes I am good, but I have been a radical subversive all the way through, ask some of my staff. Now I accept – where’s James ? – that I may have been a victim of comfort radicalism….


I cant even get it in my head! And thank you for that because I am having another look at myself to see where I might have been a real party to that. And I accept that I have not been able to shift the system beyond its neoliberal market paradigm since incorporation, but you know, I left two years ago when it just felt like FE was being privatised to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore because it looked like they were being really serious about doing it now – and they have been trying to do it since time began.


So what to me is a dark prince ? Basically I think it is these; they’re leading from fear, control, manipulation and protectionism, they haven’t really done their ego work. They are drawing on power over, they have significant narcissism and self interest and expediency drives their choices and agendas.
Some of them know that and still do it and some of them are not even aware that they are doing it. Now I have worked for FE princes/princesses who have been great to work for; most are mediocre, and several – and I am going to use these words – were toxic, vengeful, selfish narcissists who were abusing their power to their own ends. Anybody else met them ? [audience responds with yes’ and applause]


I had one boss who did not speak to me for three years except to order me around and humiliate me at every occasion. I remember her well; simply because I told her the truth. So I went from being her cherished pet – as she saw it – to an enemy overnight, it was vile.


In my first head of department role in 1986 I was the only female in ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) with eleven males, and I was the – you know they used to have those positive action posts ? I didn’t know when I applied – I was told every day of my life that I only got that job because I was a woman and no other reason. It brought me to my knees – to the edge of a nervous breakdown.


Now what happened to me – instead of having the breakdown I decided I would begin a journey of self awareness. I went into therapy I was that emotionally bruised. I am serious, it was that horrendous. So then that began a journey of self awareness into my own soul, who the hell I was, what I was doing….


Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

I started to look at toxic leadership, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries – does anybody know his work ? Leader on the Couch – the most brilliant analysis of how organisations are our defense mechanisms, and the work of Behar (Howard) Ive got and MSC in Change Aiding Skills and Strategies…


I spent two years looking at organisations as social systems and the dynamics that went on. It saved my life actually. So that was when – and this is where it is going to sound really pious, that basically I decided I would never treat another living being the way that I had been treated. Not because I am a saint or anything like that but because I just couldn’t because it had been done to me.


I am a miners daughter off a sink estate as a working class kid who got out of there through education. I’m in FE, I’m secondary teacher trained, I was an English teacher originally – I am in FE because I wanted to give back to my mates who were still on the estate and weren’t having the same sort of advantages that I’ve had. I still do it, I cry at every student graduation when I see them come through against all the odds. And I have never lost that link – people say to me why not ? I don’t know, except that I haven’t. I think it is because I am not ashamed. My mum still lives in a council house. She has been in it since 1950. I am proud of my roots, I am proud of what FE does. So I think there is something that underpinned my leadership that has been that class thing.


An essential tenet for me is democracy. Now I have experimented, when I was at the Center for Excellence and Leadership, we did a whole process on democratising strategy throughout the organisation where every member of staff was involved in contributing to the strategy in a democratic way. One of the things which I thought might be useful – and I am not going to talk in detail – is I have given you fifteen points of how to survive dark princes because I am really experienced in it because I wouldn’t have got where I was.


So I am not going to do them all, but the first thing is watch and learn how not to do it. If you have got really awful bosses they can teach you how not to do it. And I am going to look at ‘create an oasis of creativity and safety with staff. That is something which I learned to do really early on. You work out what you can protect staff from and what you cant, and just be dead honest about it; and you work and plot together about how you deal with the stuff you cant keep away from them.


Ally might use this term later. He has got a technical term for it, but I wont steal your thunder Ally – because I know he does the same.


Offering constructive descent. In my doctorate, one of the things which I looked at was how as a leader I had stopped or empowered constructive descent as a leader because it is really hard when you are in a senior leadership position and your board is bullying you and everyone is having a go at you to keep open. The number of times I have stood in my office and locked the door and thought, now I know why the principal in my last college used to go around bullying everybody because the pressure is on you to kick arse when the units are down and the money isn’t coming.


It is horrendous because you are getting the bullying and the pressure from other sources. There is always someone more powerful than you, wherever, whatever position you are in. Finding tools – I have become an expert in something called the Enneagram which helps you to work out who people are in motivations.


And you can abuse that knowledge but I’ve used it to try and find out how to work round them. Can you ethically exploit people ? I don’t know. I put that term up there and I am not even sure what I mean but I thought I would leave it there.

But I do think you have to find the weaknesses and fears of those people. I worked for a civil servant who was the biggest scardy cat on this planet, and when I worked out that she was ruled by fear I did exploit it but I think I was doing it ethically but I might not have been.


Using procedures I had to take a grievance out against the principal. I thought I would lose my career, I thought that I would never win in a million years. A thirteen hour hearing I had to go through, and they had a barrister who would not even let me have any legal support, and I won. God knows how, but we did.


And I think that the key thing in that is let people know your values and the lines which you will not cross and that might result, I had left two organisations because the toxicity was too much and I knew I couldn’t change it. I had to go; now that may sound defeatist, the first time I left it really felt defeatist but I learned that it wasn’t. It was called survival.


So I don’t know if that is helpful to you but you can have copies of the slides as they are quite useful.


What is an ethical prince ? That is my list, and I think it is more important that you have your list. What does it mean to you ? I’m not saying that is the definitive list but when I have looked back over what I have done , I think that’s – for me it is about putting the students at the heart of everything. It is meaningful that is; it is not empty jargon.


And it is about what your relationship to power is. I honestly believe that. You have to understand what your relationship to power is. I used to work for the ILEA as an equal opportunities trainer, and I used to work with women and their power, and that helped me tremendously.


So basically I have been thinking about what your work might be. So I just wanted to speak the truth – which is what Frank Cofield’s saying or whoever he is quoting when he is saying “speaking it as it is”. I went to a conference where Frank was speaking about how the sector was being badly treated by politicians, and I just found tears rolling down my face because it is like ‘oh Frank’ – we’ve become good friends since – ‘you are speaking what I know as somebody inside the system, that is what it feels like’…


I am a pathological optimist; I can be a pain in the bum because I can be so optimistic and enthusiastic.


Now I have said some of the positive things which I have tried to do. What I also know about myself. Which I have really had to work on – I can say some really unkind things without thinking it has hurt others. I just think I am being truthful in speaking it as it is. And PA’s (personal assistants) have come saying ‘you know that person has come out of your office feeling like they have been pilloried’…


I am like – ‘No we had a brilliant conversation clearing the air’ [laughter from audience]; No Lynne, you are the principal. So I have had to really learn all about that when you are in formal positions of power – how formal and informal you can be; I can be dismissive, and apparently I am a diva. There are times when I am a diva; I am still trying to work out what that means.


So what is your work ? I suggest that it’s instigating a challenging and clear professional movement for change. Whatever that change is that you want. Democratising strategy, professional development and student learning. I don’t know what that means, but there is something that feels really important about that.

Co-creating peer organisations with balance of power. I am doing lots of work on that at the moment. I work on something called Soul of Leadership, and working with organisations which want to be peer organisations without dominator hierarchies, and we are really looking at that.


Form alliances and powerful allies; and I am going to let Joel have the last word because this is his phrase – “develop consensual, positive organisational dynamics” and if you want to know what that means, because I think it sounds great, ask Joel.


It is in the Times Ed piece as well Joel, I just love that line. So, I am going to close. Most practicing leaders don’t have the time or the inclination to think deeply into democratising leadership and professionalism in the ways that contributors to ‘The Prince’ and ‘The Princesses’ have done.


I believe that these books, and you in this room today are way ahead in thinking about FE leadership. You are the future, you are instigating a powerful new grassroots movement for second order change through your research, and also through the potential actions and movements that you are going to create….


…and you are going to develop a power new and different liberating leadership narrative for this sector, so I wish you every success and offer any support or encouragement I can do out of my retirement because I just think it is amazing what is happening. And I will leave you with a Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching quote – thank you. [applause]


“The best leaders are those their people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised …

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When they have accomplished their task,
the people say, “Amazing!
We did it, all by ourselves!”

Lao Tzu -Tao Te Ching


Special thanks to Lynne for sharing her presentation and giving the benefit of her insight and experience in such an uncompromised way.