Entangled, Following, Leading

I had the opportunity to visit Long Beach on Thursday. It is an hour’s drive from my home in Braidwood, New South Wales.
Long Beach is normally deserted when we get there. We have a choice of wherever we would like to be. There are no surf lifesaving flags. There is no surf patrol there. Everyone who visits the beach understands that they have a personal responsibility for their own and others’ safety. It is a shallow, family friendly beach with no dangerous rip currents.
We were one of two families on the beach. Both of us were inducting young children into the delights of swimming.
I thought the day provided a great metaphor for some of the issues I have been thinking about of late prompted by discussions I have been having with Jo Gibson about #leadershipfollowership.
Jo is looking at the entanglement of leadership and followership in nursing contexts. Her insights have helped me think more carefully about:

  • Player-led environments in high performance sport
  • Flipped learning opportunities in an open and non-linear online course #UCSIA15.

These have led me inexorably to think in more detail about pedagogy and power.
All these thoughts have coincided with two conversations with world-leading coaches. Both are finding it difficult to work with their national sporting organisations. These organisations are uncomfortable with the coaching approaches of both coaches. They are expecting a much more authoritarian approach to coaching as hierarchical telling rather than a democratic acceptance of entangled opportunities to lead and follow.
If both organisations were in charge of Long Beach there would be a very narrow bandwidth of acceptable beach behaviour. Families would not explore the beach, they would avoid it. Freedom to be different becomes constraint.
This video about the Bodleian Library encouraged me to think about how we can transform an institution

An Open University publication, Innovating Pedagogy (2014) has helped me extend these thoughts. The report published in November looks at:

  • Open social learning
  • Learning supported by analytics
  • Flipped classrooms
  • Bring your own devices
  • Learning to learn
  • Dynamic assessment
  • Event-based learning
  • Learning through storytelling
  • Threshold concepts
  • Bricolage

All of these point to the self-monitoring and self-management that occurs at Long Beach and with the generations of children who have learned to play and swim there. It is a place of considered autonomy.
In addition to Jo’s prompting, my thoughts at Long Beach were catalysed by a line from an article in the Atlantic earlier this year (April). Derek Thompson discusses The Saviour Fallacy in basketball. In it he mentions Kevin Pritchard‘s “treadmill of mediocrity”. The treadmill captures

the widespread feeling that average teams are doomed to walk in place for eternity with no hope of advancement: they lack the talent to contend, yet never get the acclaimed top-of-the-draft picks that could meaningfully improve their rosters.

My hope is that a move to the entanglement of leadership and followership addresses this sense of eternal doom. It is a very fallible move as we learn how to transition to a shared learning space.
I find it profoundly disappointing that two coaches on this journey are having difficulties in their organisations. Their valuing of process over outcome ironically has led to some of both sports best ever results.
Quite a day at the beach!


  1. [SPITS ON HANDS] “All of these point to the self-monitoring and self-management that occurs at Long Beach and with the generations of children who have learned to play and swim there. It is a place of considered autonomy.”
    So, it’s a sort of self-fulfilling philosophy, all the time the beach remains quiet, all the users evaluate the risks and manage them accordingly. But one day something goes wrong and the local authority feel under pressure to provide some supervision; usually in the form of a Life Guard. All the time he sits quietly in his station reading a book then life carries on very much as before. However he gets a visit from the Inspector General of Life Saving Services who, because the life guard seems to spend his day reading and (possibly) chatting up members of the opposite gender, gives him a ‘failing’ rating. The fact that no one has drowned or even taken off to hospital for treatment is not considered relevant. So now, mindful of those who might be watching, our life guard now spends his time scanning the horizon for ‘potential’ incidents so he can quickly give preventative advice. So now his log-book is full of incidents where the life guard feels that a serious potential incident has been adverted. The returning the Inspector General of Life Saving Services is impressed with the diligence shown and classifies the station as ‘Outstanding’. So over time the users get used to having a life guard who warns when it’s unsafe to go into the water and the ‘safe way’ to handle all manner of inflatables and small craft. This over time takes away the ‘learned autonomy’ to ‘learned helplessness’
    In professional sports, the team coach has to keep an eye open of the equivalent of the Inspector General of Life Saving Services; most likely the owner or a committee of Directors. There are currently 91 members of the League Managers Association:
    Arsène Wenger has been in place for 18 seasons whilst 35 managers have yet to complete a whole season. In the Barclays Premier League the average tenure of a manager is a mere 2.39 seasons. There are some interesting maths behind all of this:
    So yes, I think they probably are on a treadmill of mediocrity. Some of this will come back to the Leadership/Followship debate. Who is following whom? Who is the *true* leader?
    What I have observed in Sports Administration is a confusion between Leadership and Management. Some managers are required to exercise a Leadership role. Some managers, who are required to manage team members and are not required to exercise a Leadership role, do so at the expense of managing their teams. What I’m not sure, in my mind, is the conflict between followship and management. Can you be a very good manager getting the best out of your team without providing Leadership? Are you simply a follower, leading your team into mediocrity?

    • [Smile in awe] What a great comment, Gordon. Thank you for making the time to post this. Your points are delightful. The final paragraph raises a fundamental issue for me too. Perhaps leadership and management are both humble activities? An excellent manager is modest about leadership I believe. The treat arises when the humility of a job well done is overtaken by managerialism and the uncritical compliance you describe in your comment. True leaders have remarkable humility, part of which is to recognise that managers must be enabled, supported and championed. [/Continues to smile in awe]

    Another ‘problem’ that managers in major sports have to face is the commentator. I grew up on a diet of Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld. Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ) until his untimely death two years ago. These were cricket fanatics (CMJ seemed to be a mine of facts and figures) who have not followed a career in the sport. They worked brilliantly with Richie Benaud. Now, there seems to be desire (especially in the BBC) to have former champions from the sport commentating on that sport. My personal heroine, Becky Adlington, comments on swimming. Beth Tweddle comments on gymnastics.
    Football has never been short of pundits scrutinising every decision; it must be a challenge to be a football manager these days!
    I always liked talking about Sir Alex Ferguson because (to my mind) he did provide exceptional Leadership – he expected his players to follow and got exasperated when they tried to plough their own furrow. No player was allowed to become too big for MUFC. David Moyes couldn’t make the change from Everton to MUFC; I suspect that he had good management skills but the Leadership came ‘top down’ from the Glazer family. Possibly also was the loss of David Gill as CEO.

    • The move to inside-out commentary is fascinating. All media now seek expert opinion to validate their authenticity.
      Interesting the shadow that leadership casts. One colleague suggested that there needs to be a failure within the shadow for others to floursih at two removes from the leader.

  3. I always remember a remark made over 30 years ago at a conference aimed at bridging the gender gap. The Deputy GM a guy called David Burton turned to me during dinner and with a smile said “The hallmark of a good manager I find is that they have not only developed their own replacement but recognise when the time is right to move on and allow that deputy to flourish” (I took it as a compliment aimed at both Gina (my deputy) and myself.

  4. At the time she was one of two shift Supervisors. She didn’t get my job; Waterloo was probably too high-profile a job for a promotion from within. But she did get the Area Red Star Manager’s job at Reading a few months later.


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