Five things student leaders can teach us about university management

February 2, 2016

A few months ago, in one of my regular meetings with the president of our students’ union, we explored his options for life after his sabbatical position. In the course of our discussion, it emerged that he was considering standing for re-election and, of course, I encouraged him to do this.

I proceeded to justify to him why it would be a good thing to do: “It will look great on your CV,” I said; “You will be able to really develop a range of skills,” I said; “It will be great for your future employability,” I said.

Afterwards, I reflected on the conversation and chastised myself for succumbing to a role akin to “benign benefactor” – bestowing my blessing on a highly capable individual and focusing exclusively on the benefits that he might accrue should he choose to continue in his student leadership role.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong in focusing on the benefits for the individual; clearly, the opportunities that are presented for personal and professional development within a student leadership position are considerable.

However, I had missed something that I now realise may be equally important, but something that is routinely overlooked. I had missed the fact that, as well as benefits for the individual concerned, there are also wide-ranging lessons for those of us privileged to work with students in positions of leadership. In other words, we ourselves can learn much from our student leaders in terms of a different and often refreshing approach to leadership.

In this respect, I offer five “gifts” of leadership that I believe we can receive from our student leaders; gifts that may enrich and enhance our own approach to, and understanding of, leadership and management.

Naive enthusiasm and optimism: many students in leadership positions within their university or college are new to leadership, are in post for a limited time frame and yet they wish to “make their mark” and leave a legacy. This often means two things: first, that they focus on a few things that really matter, and second, that they embrace an attitude of naive enthusiasm and optimism for what is possible.

Those of us rather longer in the tooth as regards a leadership track record are often constrained and even emasculated by the experience that we have lived and breathed. Not so our student leaders who, mostly, are new to the responsibility of leadership. Their naivety can be refreshing and freeing, leading to an attitude that would far rather “have a go” than weigh up the risks, issues, pitfalls and difficulties that we know so well given our longevity of experience. Sometimes, the naivety and innocence of an inexperienced leader who is prepared to give it a go can be refreshing and, most importantly, highly effective in actually getting things done.  

The gift of flexibility and adaptability: I am always amazed and humbled by the variety of roles and activities that we expect our student leaders to engage with. A “typical” week for an SU president may involve the following: booking acts for student events, hosting VIPs, running community events, dealing with student discipline issues, lobbying the local MP, attending formal committees such as the governing body or academic board, responding to policy consultations, running training for fellow student leaders, dealing with financial and HR issues within the team, donning a bear suit to support charitable fundraising…the list could go on.

And yet, in my experience, this variety is embraced by student leaders who appear to be naturally flexible and adaptable within their role. They exhibit no preciousness; there is no suggestion that a task or activity is “beneath them” or not part of their role. Rather, they launch in wholeheartedly to whatever is asked of them. A lesson for all of us in leadership positions.

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The gift of passion and a sense of justice: the student leaders I have been fortunate to work with have been justifiably, outspokenly passionate about key issues that affect their constituency. Issues such as course fees, accommodation costs, student debt, learning and teaching facilities, and current hot topics such as maintenance grants and freedom of speech.

Their sense of justice informs and drives an authentic and convincing presentational style when lobbying key stakeholders either internally or external to the organisation. Granted, sometimes their argument can be full of holes; but goodness me, the passion often makes up for it. These are causes that are truly believed in. Are those of us in management and leadership positions comfortable with displaying the same conviction, passion and belief in causes that matter, rather than resorting to a somewhat predictable and sometimes “vanilla” managerial stance on an issue?

The gift of “keeping it real”: in all my dealings with students’ union officers, course representatives and other students engaged with leadership roles, I always have a sense of “keeping it real”. Our student leaders have no truck with management-speak or higher education jargon. At the end of the day, they are interested in the basics: What is the issue? What does it mean for me? What should I do? Who can help me? There is rarely any over-problematisation of the issue at stake; rather, common sense tends to reign, and this is very refreshing. How often do we, in our roles as managers and leaders, overcomplicate a situation or introduce a needless element that moves us away from a focus on keeping it real?

The gift of fun: one “inspirational saying” that has done the rounds goes along the lines of “‘work hard, have fun, make a difference” – and I think we have much to learn from our student leaders who inject an element of fun into their roles. When we look at our own approach to leadership and management, do we get the balance right, or do we take ourselves just too seriously at times? Enough said. Granted, higher education is a serious business, but we must never, ever, sacrifice a sense of enjoyment in what we do. It is possible to have fun, and we should actively look for opportunities to do so.

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Our student leaders can teach us much; but often we are not prepared to recognise that fact. The lessons learned are not always obvious ones, but nonetheless they are salutary. I encourage all of us in leadership and management positions to pause, step back and consider what we might learn from our student leaders. These gifts are freely given; we just need to be prepared to receive.

Claire Taylor is pro-vice chancellor (academic strategy) at St Mary’s University Twickenham, London.

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