Enablers, exemplars and real leaders

February 13, 2014

The article “Is your university a good place to work?” (Features, 30 January) made interesting reading, although it is difficult to appraise the reported differences between places and disciplines unless respondents had personally experienced a variety of institutions and subject areas. There could be intrinsic differences between supervising veterinary practice in soggy Somerset and teaching about tourism by Chichester Cathedral.

Nonetheless, one line stands out: “There is notable concern among many academics about the performance of university leaders, with almost half expressing dissatisfaction.” Some university heads may think they are “born leaders”, but the capacity to lead a big institution or a small department well is learned, with much practice, reflection and especially nurturing. Ambition alone is not enough.

In the past 20 years I have been on at least five continuing professional development courses on management. None of these taught me anything about leading people with integrity, trustworthiness or creativity. On one led by instructors from the US Air Force, I gained a priceless insight into the film Dr Strangelove, but I learned nothing about humility or empathy with colleagues.

Much of what I learned came from modelling. One Cambridge role model (a Nobel laureate) was amazed when I told him that he was exceptionally skilled at leading varied teams: he did not see himself as a “leader”, just very careful to work with the “best” colleagues. Clearly such exceptional leaders shape an environment in which other people give their best. A former academic colleague who is researching the spiritual values of leaders calls this “creating context”.

Mark Pegg of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has written about the changing emphasis of what makes good university leaders. He suggests that they will be “less likely to be authority figures making a call to arms, they will be subtler, more nuanced leaders, with the skills to influence and ability to empower others”. The environment and human capital of each university is different, but a lesson from another role model at University College London was that all staff need to connect with a team, and that every team needs every one of its members.

Woody Caan
Editor, Journal of Public Mental Health

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