Alan Ryan

May 4, 2007

There was a nice conjunction of stories last week. First, The Times Higher revealed that increasing numbers of institutions want to make their staff take psychometric tests to see if they have the right qualities for promotion to leadership positions. Then, a study of the role of head teachers was published that revealed that leadership makes a vanishingly small difference to the performance of schools. Apparently, the study used the same methodology that revealed that football managers make almost no difference, either. Before José Mourinho blows a fuse, one has to say that all such studies allow for the fact that really exceptional leadership can make a lot of difference; but exceptional is what it is. Most isn't and doesn't. What the market in managerial skill reflects is the - usually vain, but sometimes justified - hope that your case will be one of the exceptional ones. That may explain why vice-chancellors make more than the Prime Minister while they are employed - though rarely as much as ex-prime ministers after they have left office.

But gazing around the vice-chancellorial landscape, it is hard not to wonder whether they all had to submit to psychometric testing before they were appointed, and what the results were. Indeed, junior staff who appear to feel threatened by being asked to take such tests might decently say that they will happily do it when the bosses do so, too, and preferably only when their bosses have the results published on the university's website. Academic leadership - to the extent that it's not a contradiction in terms - requires borderline psychopathy in its practitioners; not because it's academic, but because it's leadership, period.

Real leadership, as distinct from paper-pushing, is something exercised in demanding conditions and, as Machiavelli observed, the trouble with most human beings is that they have stable personalities and find it impossible to adapt to the whims of fortune with the speed that's needed. Sometimes, you have to be guileless, sometimes duplicitous, sometimes hail fellow well met, sometimes the incarnation of the east wind; sometimes, you have to creep and fawn upon the powerful, sometimes you have to be bold and resolute in prosecuting a hopeless cause today in the knowledge that victory can come out of it tomorrow. Always, you need to be ready to turn on a dime. The trouble with most of us is that we rely on one trick; the duplicitous cannot seize the moment when boldness is needed, and the bold cannot curb the urge to fight when a tactical retreat is required.

A thoroughly unstable personality - Machiavelli's hero, Cesare Borgia, for instance - does very well in the chaotic conditions of late 15th century Italy, and perhaps that really is the sort of person you need to run a university in the run-up to the research assessment exercise, where you must fawn upon the newly minted professor whom you lure with gifts and cajolery but whom you will sack without hesitation if he doesn't bring home the bacon in RAE 2008.J I doubt that even Borgia would make a wholly successful vice-chancellor. Nowadays, as Machiavelli only half-observed, you need the ability to combine the patient attention to detail of a junior ledger clerk with the rhetorical skills of Arthur Scargill. Borgia could simply loot the city he had most recently sacked.

The conventional view about academic management, of course, is that it is anyway impossible. The fact that Birmingham University listed the academic faculty as the major threat to the implementation of the university's strategy can't really have come as much of a surprise to readers of The Times Higher . It might have been a bit tactless of whoever thought to write it down, but at least half of the faculty would surely have seen it as a badge of honour to be regarded as unpredictable and unreliable by their management. Give the faculty the chance to do a Swot analysis on their university and it's a safe bet that overpaid, uninformed and unsympathetic university administrators would feature prominently among the threats and that hard-working, perceptive, personally adroit and invariably helpful senior management would not often be recorded as one of the university's strengths.

It is, after all, a known hazard of any kind of leadership that you simultaneously provide a lightning rod for other people's frustrations of whatever sort, excite unrealisable expectations for the things you can do for them, and - witness Gordon Brown's comment on the fate of Chancellors of the Exchequer - almost always depart trailing behind you faint disappointment or worse. On the other hand, you will learn how to herd cats: don't rush up behind them, walk in front - very slowly - trailing a red herring.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford University.

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