We need courageous leaders

By Paul Gentle –

Given the scale and pace of change anticipated over the next few years in higher education, the importance of effective, engaged leadership appears to be growing exponentially. A fundamental challenge is set out in the IPPR’s report ‘An Avalanche is Coming’:

‘University leaders need to take control of their own destiny and seize the opportunities open to them through technology… to provide broader, deeper and more exciting education. Leaders will need to have a keen eye toward creating value for their students.’

There is considerable diversity in the range of interpretations that UK HEIs are currently making about the task in hand. At one end of the scale, academic leaders report growing challenges from students as to the cost per hour of the tuition they receive, and their perceived entitlement to a high degree classification. At the other end of the spectrum are leaders in institutions which are re-examining the very paradigms of university education. In all cases there needs to be a clear understanding of the distinctive purpose of the institution and how to make this authentic in the lived-out experiences of students and staff.

There is no room for complacency. Research on scenarios for global higher education by 2020 indicate several key weaknesses endemic in the UK system, namely that it is characterised by: pursuing opportunistic goals rather than remaining consistent with university missions; obsession with results; dominance of national policy interests; hierarchical models and structures; and tensions between needs for change and for democratic participation within universities.2

The Leadership Foundation is in a privileged position in its ability to learn from senior leaders across all types of institutions in the UK and beyond. A common observation by those on Senior Management Teams (SMTs) in universities is that the realities of working in such teams present serious constraints as to their ability to act in the ways suggested by the IPPR report.

Leadership development has a key role to play in bringing about change in the practices employed by SMTs. Provision such as the Top Management Programme make space in which individual leaders can reflect confidentially with their peers and consider how to strengthen their respective contributions to the executive teams on which they serve.

Discussions often begin by considering the extent to which SMT meetings focus on the strategic as opposed to the operational, and on external issues rather than internal ones.3 Such conversations soon lead to people asking themselves questions such as ‘What can I do to change how we work?’, questions in which the implied challenge varies considerably according to the word upon which stress is placed. This raises all sorts of questions as to where agency for change resides, and about working cultures, processes and so on.

On further examination, it becomes clear that behaviours in and around many SMTs are influenced (and often constrained) by issues concerning power relationships, fear of failure and a tendency to be driven by the macro-economic and macro-political environment. This clearly militates against taking control of one’s own destiny. The manifestations of these behaviours can be seen in the different levels of deference shown by participants in meetings, and by relatively limited repertoires for using questions to shape the tone, content and flow of conversations. Cognitive and political intelligences are often to the fore, leaving little space for the application of social and emotional intelligences, which might lead to more effective collective commitment.4

The design of a successful leadership development programme should emphasise the impact which participants – and their university sponsors – intend it to make on their immediate and sustained practice in their university. While retreating into a safe space for discussion with peers is attractive and arguably beneficial in itself, its full effect can only be realised if it motivates and supports leaders in their determination to bring about strategic and cultural change in their respective workplaces.

A beacon of hope is offered in the Horizon Scanning report, in the opportunity which it identifies for leadership which is “decisive, values-based, adaptable and light touch”2 – a set of characteristics which seems to appeal to practising leaders and to speak to what they perceive as the expectations being placed on their SMTs by those in the wider university workforce.

So how might leaders develop these characteristics? A key enabler seems to lie in increasing the confidence and skill of leaders to seek and to give feedback on specifically-evidenced behaviours, and on the impact of those behaviours on others. Building in authentic opportunities for feedback into the design of leadership programmes is therefore crucial6, and entirely feasible where the design highlights challenging experiential activities, such as undertaking a collaborative task in one’s own or another organisation, making a video to convey a strategic message, or running a simulated university.

Linking the learning about leadership from a programme to the real challenges faced by leaders in their own university seems critical. In order for leaders to bring about the changes in universities which they and their institutions require, it is essential to identify and tackle the barriers which impede solutions being implemented.7 The opportunities afforded by using the techniques of action learning8, applied within a clear context of planned, measurable impact for the institution, are considerable – and these have led to the focus of the design of the Top Management Programme around activities for small clusters of diverse individuals, conceived as Impact Groups.

By encouraging individuals to support and challenge one another to be courageous and imaginative, we believe that leadership development can enable leaders in higher education to be more proactive in shaping the future of higher education.

Dr Paul Gentle is the Director of Programmes at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education was set up in 2004 to provide a dedicated resource of leadership, governance and management advice to higher education institutions throughout the UK, the Leadership Foundation regularly has close to 90% of the publicly funded universities and higher education colleges in membership. The LF designs and delivers leadership development interventions and consultancy services for its members. Everything the LF does is devoted to supporting those who aspire to be better leaders, and inspiring leadership.

  1. Barber, M. et al. (2013) An Avalanche is Coming (London: Institute for Pubic Policy Research).
  2. Lawton, W., Ahmed, M., Angulo, T., Axel-Berg, A., Burroes, A. and A. Katsomitros (2013) Horizon Scanning: what will higher education look like in 2020 ? (London: Observatory on Borderless Higher Education/ Leadership Foundation for Higher Education)
  3. Kennie, T. and S. Woodfield (2008) The Composition, Challenges and Changes in the Top Team Structures of UK Higher Education Institutions (London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education).
  4. Gentle, P. (2014) Engaging Leaders: the challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities (Abingdon: Routledge).
  5. Lawton, W., Ahmed, M., Angulo, T., Axel-Berg, A., Burroes, A. and A. Katsomitros (2013) Horizon Scanning: what will higher education look like in 2020 ? (London: Observatory on Borderless Higher Education/ Leadership Foundation for Higher Education)
  6. King, S.N. and L.C. Santana (2010) ‘Feedback-Intensive Programs’ in Van Velsor, E., McCauley, C.D., and M.N. Ruderman (eds.) A Handbook of Leadership Development (San Francisco: Jossey Bass).
  7. Tourish, D. (2012) Leadership development within the UK higher education system: its impact on organisational performance, and the role of evaluation (London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education).
  8. Revans, R. W. (1982) The Origins and Growth of Action Learning (Bromley: Chartwell-Bratt).

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