Beyond naked power

Vice-chancellors and those who select them might learn from the successes – and notable failures – of politics

April 10, 2014

A few weeks ago, Bob Cryan, of the University of Huddersfield, gave a talk titled “The Naked Vice-Chancellor”.

To the disappointment or relief (delete as appropriate) of the audience at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education event, his interpretation was not a literal one.

Instead, he described how, in his first days in the job, he noticed that someone he had called in for a meeting was physically shaking, so nervous were they of an audience with “the boss”.

Realising that he was never going to achieve what he wanted if his staff were frightened of him, he vowed that he would be what he called an “authentic” leader.

Among the questions that authentic leaders should ask themselves, he suggested, was whether they would get their job if they were to apply for it today, while their overall approach should be “of the people” rather than feudalistic (or, to use the jargon, top-down).

Those responsible for selecting leaders often swing, pendulum-like, from one end of the personality spectrum to the other

Cryan is particularly suited to this approach as a proud local lad – if you visit Huddersfield he will point out the tower block where he grew up.

But his ideas chime with many of those set out in our cover feature this week, in which the veteran political scientist Archie Brown considers the lessons for universities from 20th-century political leadership.

He argues that those responsible for selecting leaders often swing, pendulum-like, from one end of the personality spectrum to the other, trying with each appointment to atone for the failings of the last, when what’s required is an understanding that “leadership is not the same as personal power”.

Brown quotes from his personal archive of correspondence with Isaiah Berlin, who suggests in the letters that the most important qualities in a leader of an academic institution are “justice, kindness, imagination and intellectual power”.

This must also include experience within academia, Berlin suggests, an argument echoed by several of a panel of experts polled for our feature (one goes further, saying that a vice-chancellor must be at least as good a researcher as the top 10 to 15 per cent in their institution).

As an aside, it’s interesting that in letters of Berlin’s published last year, he also warned against any increasing reliance on “mechanical formulae to dispose of anything that may be difficult or complicated” – a foreshadowing, perhaps, of today’s use of metrics as a management tool.

One of the themes that runs throughout both Brown’s article and the other opinions we sought out is the importance of what might be called “human” attributes – kindness, empathy and an ability and willingness to listen.

On one level this seems blindingly obvious, yet there has still been a tendency for such qualities to be eclipsed on the headhunter’s checklist by “strength” – what Brown describes as the hunt for a “power maximiser who will confidently take the big decisions and be the overwhelmingly dominant personality within the institution”.

In the end, decision-making isn’t just a crucial part of the job, it pretty much is the job, and competence on all the usual fronts is a prerequisite.

But what elevates leadership above mere “management” is reaching those decisions in a way that ensures that people follow because they want to, not because they have to.

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