What is responsible leadership in tertiary education?

This leadership model emphasises participation and community over individual heroics and champions broad measures of success, writes Harry Gill

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Harry Gill's avatar
Zayed University
12 Jan 2023
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Educational leaders do not enjoy the same freedoms as business leaders. They cannot, for instance, switch their client base. Regardless, the notion of responsible leadership can be applied equally to both situations.

Responsible leadership in business develops relationships in order to foster success. The value of cultivating relationships extends well beyond measures of success, or even failure, though, to emphasise the relationships themselves. This interconnectedness drives performance levels to exceed expectations. How very exciting: a leadership model that not only fosters success but aims to elevate a company’s drive to achieve new highs in productivity.

So, how does this translate to a tertiary setting?

Well, by circumventing the more conservative notion of the heroic individual, as described by transactional and transformational leadership models, responsible leadership leans into community interaction and participation at all levels. Performance exceeds expectation when education leaders lead alongside faculty and administrators, as well as through them, and not only inside but also outside the organisation, to ignite full participation from all stakeholders, including students. Just as the essence of community involves shifting away from an emphasis on individual leadership and achievement, responsible educational leadership attributes success to staff and community engagement. Through strengthening ties, everyone is seen to benefit.

Institutions need to continually explore and weigh the impact of indicators that may contribute to student success if they are serious about applying the responsible leadership model to a tertiary setting.

More focus could be placed on interdisciplinary models that include:

  • indirect and formative assessment
  • compulsory community work
  • research collaboration with outside stakeholders
  • cross-disciplinary course development
  • systematic provision for strategic, operational and tactical planning in consultation with external stakeholders
  • evidence-based research on company retention rates for new graduates in the workplace
  • evidence-based research of work performance/evaluation of new graduates in the workplace
  • evidence-based research of professional development trends for new graduates in the workplace
  • arguments supporting the implementation of performance-based pay schedules.

Less focus could be placed on:

  • student academic achievement
  • technical components of academic instruction
  • rational and pedagogical features of learning and instruction
  • curriculum and scripting course learning outcomes
  • summative assessment
  • campus facility upgrades.

Positive outcomes that may flow from this shift in focus might include:

  • less cheating on high-stakes exams and summative assessment
  • less faculty time spent on test building, grading and grade entry
  • more work satisfaction
  • students exhibiting well-rounded behaviours anchored in community and social responsibility
  • preparation for the workplace
  • accelerated work placement schemes/programmes
  • more benefits associated with on-site vocational training.

Proposed here is a shift to an appreciation for the interpersonal. This move is suggested not because the technical aspects of change in tertiary circles are inoperative but because they are not sufficient. Responsible leadership may thus be one way to raise institutional effectiveness to a level that eventually exceeds performance expectations.

At a time when resources are increasingly scarce, responsible leadership in education must still see itself as a field distinct from a business operation with its separate or distinct values, norms and stakeholders. At the same time, universities should aim to achieve a competitive advantage, much like a business, by strategically sharing decision-making power while minimising the impact of their underused resources.

Harry Gill is a senior instructor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.

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