Authentic leadership isn’t new – but we need it more than ever in HE

For leadership to be effective, we need to understand our own limitations and listen to others to learn how to overcome them, say Sarah Jones and Alasdair Blair


De Montfort University
29 Sep 2021
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Empathy is a big part of authentic leadership, along with open decisionmaking

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Universities no longer operate as they used to. They are centres for events, sport, hospitality and more. They become student villages with health and well-being key priorities for the communities that inhabit them. It’s not enough for academics to be experts in their field − they act as counsellors and undertake teaching from undergraduate to professional education. They assume administrative duties, engage in citizenship and outreach activities, and are expected to publish high-quality research. In the past year they also became digital media specialists converting lectures and seminars into high-class media productions.

These multilayered identities for both academics and higher education sit within a more competitive landscape where a renewed focus on audit is reflected in both scepticism and challenges in the sector. Frequent stories in the press focus on the pay of vice-chancellors and industrial action over pensions – along with academic resistance to a managerialist culture in universities, which are criticised as being run like businesses.

All this signals a seismic shift in our expectations of university leaders.

What we need now are leaders who are empathetic, resilient, compassionate and, most importantly, who hold themselves and others accountable for their behaviour and values. We need to move towards the “authentic” university leader.

Back in 2003, Bill George defined authentic leaders as having, or working towards, five characteristics: purpose and passion; values and behaviour; relationships and connectedness; self-discipline and consistency; and heart and compassion. Much of the conversation around authentic leadership stemmed from the unethical behaviour of companies such as Enron that led to the financial crash in the 2000s. At that time there was a huge sense of distrust − and thus arose the need to focus on these characteristics to meet leadership challenges.

In contrast to the US, the UK does not have a tradition of university leaders writing about their experiences of leading. This includes their own challenges (and failings). Yet, a year ago in October 2020, Simone Buitendijk did just that, when she wrote on her University of Leeds blog about the strain that colleagues were putting themselves under.

Seven months into the pandemic, Buitendijk wrote that we needed to accept our limitations and that we could not deliver what students expected − and that was OK. In admitting to her own adversities, Buitendijk urged her community of staff and students to accept that we could only do our best. For her, it wasn’t about letting go of our standards of care for students, but rather to do our best to ensure that their experiences and outcomes were good, while acknowledging that this might not be where it had been in previous years.

Such upfront honesty is quite rare. But being authentic is not without its downsides. Back in 2015, Herminia Ibarra wrote about the dilemmas attached to the authentic leader. She considered this the “authenticity paradox”, where a desire to be authentic can limit the potential for personal growth. By holding firm to personal beliefs, one can limit the search for innovative ideas.

While authenticity can result in leaders spending too much time “storytelling” through sharing their experiences, Brené Brown considers such conversations to be about opening up and being vulnerable. This is a sign of courage.

For leadership to be effective, it requires us to understand our own limitations and listen to others to learn how we can overcome them. This requires leaders to act in an authentic manner, which can be problematic in a university setting where staff are often conflicted between their role and position within their discipline and institution. Many refer to “the university” as something distinct from themselves, rather than accepting that they are part of the university community.

But the sector is facing massive challenges, from rocketing pension costs and fluctuating student numbers to a changing model of delivery. The economic impact of the pandemic has led to job cuts in universities across the globe. It is in such situations that an authentic leadership approach is needed most.

Many universities have and will go through further restructures, redundancies and strategy implementations that may result in increases to workloads and a period of pain before benefits can be realised. The inevitable may not be able to be avoided, but an authentic leadership approach can bring about clarity, honesty and transparency in decision-making.

Clear communication about why decisions are in the best interests of the university and its community are essential, while allowing the authentic leader to own their mistakes and admit when things are challenging. Tough decisions are never easy to make, but leading with authenticity and with transparent decision-making can start a new culture of fairness, where mistakes provide lessons to learn from.

The role of the academic leader needs to change. Just as universities have seen a shift in their business models, it is essential that those at the top adapt to new ways of leading. Through the past year and the challenges ahead, the emergence of the authentic leader will help address ways of working and worries among the university community and beyond.

Sarah Jones is deputy dean at the UK’s De Montfort University, working across all aspects of student experience, outcomes and innovative pedagogies.

Alasdair Blair is associate pro vice-chancellor academic and Jean Monnet professor at De Montfort University. He is co-editor of Leadership in Higher Education (Emerald, 2022).


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