What we need is leadership

Originally published on changesu

I’m typing with a sore, “Popworld” head after Students’ Unions 2016, and as ever there’s a mixture of reflections- there’s positives, like the energising atmosphere, inspiring plenaries and comradely networking; and there’s negatives- frustratingly truncated discussions, an acoustically challenging awards night and too many sessions with the same old formats.

Theming the conference around E&D seemed right and important, but the resultant lack of workshop breadth did feel restrictive. That said, it was overall a good event, these things are always full of contradictions and we shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is for our national partners to tread the fine lines involved.

I’ve been attending this event or its staff dominated antecedents for the best part of 20 years now, and whilst I’ve enjoyed its recent incarnations as “Students’ Unions 20XX” I’ve had a nagging sense of there being something missing from the proceedings. And it’s only this week that I managed to put my finger on it.

I am in a profession. I do a job that others do. That job is not the most important in the world and nor do those that hold the job have the biggest “needs” but I do think we think it’s an important job in the world which we inhabit. We want people to do the job well- to be knowledgeable and skilled and on the top of their game. We want people who occupy this role to be diverse. We want our student officers to get the very best support to enable them to most effectively deliver for their members and we want our staff to be managed in a way that drives up their effectiveness and impact.

And I think all of that needs leadership. I think my profession– being a senior manager in an SU- needs more than just (regional) networking- it needs leadership. And that leadership might mean many things:

  • It might mean making sense and meaning of the world around us and linking that to what we do as SU managers day to day
  • It might mean convening- discussions, partnerships, projects or teams to solve problems, generate ideas and get things done
  • It might mean reflecting on the challenges we face and identifying collective solutions to problems
  • It might mean advocating for the work we do, or defending the role we have, or pushing our behaviours to be more ethical and effective
  • It might mean creating spaces to share fears, work through worries and reduce the loneliness of the role we have
  • It might mean pushing us to be faster, or better, or kinder, or smarter- to know more things and adapt our role in changing times
  • It means identifying our competencies, celebrating our successes, planning our career paths and taking our recruitment and development collectively seriously

Since I’ve been involved in the student movement, that kind of professional leadership has existed in a number of guises. There was a time when AMSU and its coordinating committee and chairperson took on some of the tasks. There have been times when the NUSSL CEO offered challenge, thought leadership and convening skills. STADIA did it for some of us and NUSSL for others. Many of us remember a version of the NUS CEO role that appeared to be more about being the “National General Manager” than it was about running NUS. And countless others have played their part too, as regional coordinators, on projects or in action learning encounters.

What I do know is that right now overall there’s not a lot of it about, the new NUS strategy doesn’t contain masses of it and what is that’s around in the leadership of my profession is often furtive or undercooked in a way that is unhelpful.

This is not a call to recreate AMSU (whatever that might mean) or to split NUSSL back off from NUS or to demand that the NUS CEO role be more like some of its predecessors- the NUS group is now too complex to expect this additional role too. It’s also not a call to take officers out of events or return to the dark days of Golf Clubs and Barrelage discussions. Harking back to the past to solve the problems of the future can be fun but staring in the rear view mirror whilst driving usually causes a crash.

But it is a call to come together to do something about the development of and leadership of our profession. Working this out together- and with the involvement of our elected officers- should dominate our networking spaces, our contributions to mailbases and our regional meetings in the year ahead. We are leaders in profoundly uncertain times, when our organisations and student officers will demand the very best from those paid to support, guide and lead their staff teams. Part of the problem or part of the solution. Mumbling around the edges of events won’t help. Some leadership and will to sort this out from all of us will.



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