Q&A with Mark Pegg

We speak to the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

March 20, 2014

Mark Pegg is chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, which this month celebrates its 10th anniversary. A director of Ashridge Business School, Dr Pegg has expertise in coaching and team development and has advised business and government for more than 20 years.

Where and when were you born?
Derby in coronation year, 1953. Also the year Hillary and Tenzing scaled Everest to reach the roof of the world and inspire a generation.

How has this shaped you?
People still make high-quality things in Derby, the home of Rolls-Royce. It was the end of the age of austerity and the beginning of a new era when “you never had it so good”. Historians will call us the Elizabethans.

As the Leadership Foundation turns 10, what is your greatest achievement?
Everyone in the institution takes the credit for “inspiring leadership”, and for creating an organisation that makes a difference, adds value and earns respect in higher education.

What are the pressing issues in the foundation’s second decade?
The time for good leaders is always now and the essential skills barely change over time. What is different is that leaders must engage and build leadership at every level in a diverse and rapidly changing world.

Do you hope to be at the foundation when it turns 20?
No, but one vital part of my job is to make sure that I help to develop someone really excellent to lead after I’ve retired, and that they have a vibrant and high-performing team to take over.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes: “I must marry that woman!” Fortunately she said yes. We’re still happily married.

Why should Joe Bloggs care about your work?
Tell me when you last heard anyone where you work say we have too much leadership and too little management around here.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
For some years I taught a leadership development programme designed around “if I knew then what I know now”. My advice today: create a vision, articulate it clearly and keep learning about your leadership – you are never the finished article.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Can I sneak in two? Everyone has an inspiring teacher – mine was Norman Rothwell, my history teacher at grammar school. And I still stay in touch with my Oxford tutor, Sir Brian Harrison – brilliant, dedicated and selfless.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The inexorable rise and rise of the digital natives.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I meet fascinating people who can hold insightful conversations on practically anything every day, which compensates for the challenge of “herding cats” in a world where autonomy is valued above all, although even this can be worthwhile most days.

What keeps you awake at night?
The fear that some idiot will pull the nuclear trigger.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I watched the Boat Race on TV and for some reason preferred dark to light blue. I was driven to live my dream against the odds – few from my school went to university. I got there, but didn’t row, and realised I had no idea what to do afterwards.

Tell us about a book, show, film or play that you love.
Just as nuclear submarine captains are told to listen out for the BBC when they surface to check if anyone is left alive, I love to start the day with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. My doctoral thesis was a social history of British radio broadcasting.

What do you do for fun?
I am the coach for a Chesham United Youth Football Club U17 team. It’s such a thrill when the boys play the beautiful game, pass well and score skilful goals.

What’s your biggest regret?
That Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill decided to fight out a personal battle at public expense, destroyed thousands of jobs including my own – I was a National Coal Board manager and had to cross a picket line every day for a year – and left a permanent legacy of human misery and devastated communities. And we all allowed them do it. I hope we’ve learned something.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
It was worth its weight in gold to me. Today, I think it’s gone platinum, but I can see some are losing belief. The next generation of university leaders have to convince doubters with a confident, well-argued case for smarter and more sustainable universities that will help us all to compete successfully in the knowledge economy.

To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
I am the first in four generations of men in my family who did not have to carry arms in the military. It is my responsibility not to take their sacrifice for granted, and to value living in a civilised and peaceful society that offers opportunity to all and cares about those less fortunate than themselves.


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