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Leaders must accept their own limits when trying to change the world - Graham Razey

10 November 2022

By Graham Razey, chief executive of EKC Group

There’s a prayer that’s often seen on motivational posters. It’s one of those aphoristic statements that seem deeply sensible, but actually, upon unpacking, becomes markedly more challenging for an individual to implement. It’s called the “prayer of serenity”, and I’ve no doubt that you, as a reader, will recognise it instantly, as even Hallmark Cards has made use of it! I’ll paraphrase the most famous excerpt of it slightly; it reads: Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other.

Written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1951, the serenity prayer is deeply personal to me, as throughout my career I have wrestled with two key types of challenge, namely the things that, as an individual, I am in control of, and those things that I simply can’t change.

The prayer itself asks the reader to reflect on two challenging concepts: acceptance and surrender. As a highly competitive individual, the concept of surrender has always been one that I struggle with, because it feels as though I’m giving up. And when I’m out there, on the cricket pitch, readying myself for the run up to bowl to my opponent, surrender simply doesn’t exist, no matter what the overall match score is. You wouldn’t find many sports people who didn’t share that thinking, as winning becomes all that really matters. So, with that in mind, how have I managed to reconcile myself with the concept that I should accept the things that can’t be changed?

Well, it certainly hasn’t been easy. In fact, throughout my career, I have expended a significant amount of my energy attempt to compel change even when I couldn’t. From sitting on boards where everyone says the right thing then goes away and does something completely different, to acting as a member of government influencing groups, and my public affairs activities lobbying politicians, I have wasted a considerable amount of time and energy through the years.

The impact of this desire to drive change when I simply couldn’t led to a chronic increase in my stress levels, with a large portion of anxiety lumped on the side. And I think it’s the same for many within further education, a sector that I know we all love. That’s because we all want the very best possible outcomes for the young people in our care, and the broader communities we serve. So it is frustrating when that control is taken away from us, and there’s nothing we can do to augment the change we so desperately want.

It has taken me a number of years – well, actually my whole career to this point – to refine the strategies and coping mechanisms I can make use of to accept this lack of control in certain areas of life. Through cognitive behavioural therapy and other leadership techniques, I’ve learnt when to step back from things I’m unable to create change in, and have developed the ability to not become stressed about them. And whilst I’d love to dispense some sage advice to you and give a silver bullet to accepting that there are things you can’t change, sadly I can’t. What I can say is that it’s a journey, and one that I’ve found deeply personal.

However, when you are able to turn that corner and accept that there are things in life and work that you simply cannot change, it pays you back in dividends. I now have the ability to focus on topics where I genuinely can affect change, driving improvements for the thousands of students we have within our college group, and the whole of our community. The time I reclaim from moving away from those things I cannot control, I am able to dedicate to those things that I can control which is ultimately significantly more rewarding, offering me the sense of making a real difference. And I come back to the serenity prayer regularly, as it is that acceptance and wisdom that we could all do with a bit more of at times. My sporting and family background have given me an instinctive desire to improve those things that I do have control over, and the years of hard gained experience have given me the insight into where I can create change.

So, why should any of you care? Because as a sector right now, we are facing a turbulent environment, with a cost-of-living crisis that’s impacting significantly on the vast majority of our society, and disproportionately on the socio-economically deprived communities that many FE organisations support. There is so much that I want to change and improve, to make my colleagues, students, and communities’ lives better. There are so many areas where I want to help. And I keep being drawn back to the fact that I need to accept I cannot make all of these changes, and simply focus on the things that I can improve.

But I’ll be truthful. Right now, that’s genuinely hard for me as an FE sector leader, and one of the reasons I’m really struggling at the moment. And I’d imagine it’s the same challenge that many of you are facing, whether as FE college principals, lecturers, service staff, or any other sector participant. The one thing I do know with complete certainty is that we’re immeasurably stronger together, so I remain hopeful that even when we think we can’t change something, collaboratively we’ll be able to do so, and weather this coming storm as one.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.