University leadership: sailing together or sinking in rough seas?

Higher education managers must focus on the capacity of the collective if institutions are to succeed, argue Richard Bolden, Sandra Jones, Heather Davis and Paul Gentle

March 16, 2016
Sailboats entering the finish of the Fiumanka regatta in Rijeka, Croatia.

Alison Johns, the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, has argued that university leaders would do well to consider focusing on creating development opportunities, proactively improving diversity and addressing work-life balance. She also advocates attracting leaders with outside experience and analysing the motivations of potential leaders.

In extending these ideas, drawing on our recent stimulus report, Developing and Sustaining Shared Leadership in Higher Education, we offer five ways to build collective leadership capacity in universities to better enable leaders to navigate the fast-moving and turbulent waters that they face today.

Focus on the ship rather than the leader

Encourage a shared and mutual sense of purpose in which everyone recognises the contribution they can make. This requires a shift in mindset that involves:

  • developing a sense of "relational identity" where interdependencies between self and others are embraced (eg, recognising leading and following as two sides of the same coin);
  • acknowledging social interactions and relationships as the bedrock of leadership (eg, seeing conversations as an integral part of the work of leadership); and
  • realising that growth, both personal and organisational, emerges through connection (eg, building opportunities for interaction, collaboration and genuine discussion between different groups of individuals).

Think flotilla rather than oil tanker

While universities are often thought of as large, bureaucratic and slow moving, leading a university should be considered as more like coordinating a flotilla than commanding an individual ship. Most universities are loosely coupled systems with highly autonomous departments and faculties and close collaborations with external partners. It is possible to work with this level of complexity and ambiguity only if we do not heed the siren call of believing that we are “in control”. To encourage a focus on mission, so that flotillas are nimble enough to change course where necessary and draw fully upon shared leadership, we encourage attention to:

  • people: the involvement of a broad range of experts contributing their knowledge;
  • processes: that support individuals to share their expertise across traditional functions and structures;
  • professional development: provided to develop individual and collective skills, identities and behaviours; and
  • resources: provided to encourage collaboration, networks and partnerships.

Embrace the power of the crew

While much work on university leadership focuses on positional leaders – captains, admirals and officers – we suggest looking beyond hierarchies to recognise the contribution of the many experts and committed crew members across the institution. The threat of mutiny demonstrates that leadership is not given but granted and that, where trust is lost, formal leaders are largely powerless to prevent it being taken away from them.

Steer clear of “teams” as sites of development efforts and think instead about how to develop “crews” made up of people who can come together quickly, drawing upon their well-developed knowledge of self and understanding of their expertise in relation to others (see our first point). This level of agility harnesses energies and resources to create flexible and adaptive organisations that endure over time.

Go ‘below decks’

Making a safe and successful voyage requires moving from the idea of leadership, with a focus solely on the characteristics and competencies of individual “leaders”, to the idea of leadership, with a focus on the capacity of the collective. On this ship, academics and professional staff work together, sometimes leading and sometimes following, on the basis of their expertise and energy rather than positional authority. 

Such an approach requires us to ask “inconvenient questions” about power, purpose and privilege in universities: to go below the surface and challenge entrenched assumptions, remove barriers and create new opportunities for engagement. Only then will it be possible to move from the perspective of leadership as a managerial prerogative to a shared right and responsibility of all citizens.

Use ‘semaphore’ to signal intent

Learning to sail together requires the development of shared values and working practices. Nelson’s famous semaphore message at the Battle of Trafalgar – “England expects that every man will do his duty” – shows the power of communicating strategic intent rather than the minutiae of how this will be achieved. In universities it is important for leadership communications to consider the importance of:

  • context: where leadership engages with the knowledge and concerns of those closest to the issue;
  • culture: where leadership is focused less on control and more on respect for experience and expertise;
  • change; where leadership is recognised as emanating from multiple levels and functions, as a mix of top-down, bottom-up and middle-out contributions; and
  • relationships: where leadership is based on collaboration between individuals that together contribute to a collective identity.

In an increasingly competitive higher education environment, developing a capacity for shared leadership is not simply desirable but a necessity. And it’s happening already, as the following example from the Leadership Foundation indicates:

At the end of 2013, a university in the UK expanded the size, scope and capacity of its executive team to work collaboratively to achieve institutional goals using a set of learning conversations at a residential retreat event. This involved working with a facilitator through a set of authentic decision-making activities which were paused at critical moments in order to examine the social interactions taking place, and thus to provide opportunities for feedback.

To summarise, shared leadership requires a systemic approach to leadership development that focuses upon the relationships between individuals, groups and organisations rather than any one of these in isolation. As the leadership scholar John Adair observed, the most important word in the leader's vocabulary is “we” and the least important word is “I”. Ultimately we are all in the same boat.

Heather Davis is programme director (awards) at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management at the University of Melbourne; Richard Bolden is professor of leadership and management at the University of the West of England; Paul Gentle is programme director for the top management programme at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education; and Sandra Jones is professor of employment relations at RMIT University.

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Reader's comments (2)

Well, yes. In theory, that is all very lovely and inclusive. But when you are confronted by the very worst of drive-by management and senior management incompetence that almost beggars belief, then most of this "focus on the ship" stuff becomes rather more difficult to do in any meaningful sense. There are places where "consultation" and "engagement" are simply synonyms for, "we've decided, and we want the decision given the patina of legitimacy". There are places where change management programmes instituted by senior leaders could be used as case studies in how not to institute organisational change. And where strategic plans are exercises in rolling a turd in glitter. Everyone knows it's a turd, but at least it sparkles in the right light. There are places where staff are treated, not so much with disrespect, but with contempt and a culture of fear exists, so that if you want to keep your job, you'll keep your mouth shut. And there places where provision, which was placed in the hands of the institution in trust, has been destroyed by a combination of negligence and almost wilful vandalism. There are still places like these. And people are sill working at them.
— What do you thinking of Leadership at the Poppleton University? — That would be an excellent idea.

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