Leading lights

January 4, 2008

The story "Campuses suffer leadership and information deficits" (December 21) was based on a paper I and my colleagues presented at the annual Society for Research into Higher Education Conference in December, in which we argued that leadership in higher education is experienced "in tension" due to the interplay of a series of inter-related factors.

We argued that one of the tensions is between the identity of leaders as "academics" and "managers" and proposed that where these roles are perceived as competing rather than complementary they can "discourage academics from actively seeking and embracing formal leadership roles".

The story incorrectly implied that all academics avoid taking on managerial positions. Our findings clearly indicate that many academics seek a management/leadership career but that this requires them either to reframe their sense of identity as an academic/manager and/or reconceive management/leadership in a manner that is not at odds with the role of an academic - something that can be facilitated through the provision of opportunities for socialisation and the development of a sense of shared "social identity" with other managers.

The story concluded that "true power lay only with those who held the purse strings". While we did argue that such people hold a disproportionate amount of influence within their institutions and that access to resources is a significant lever in terms of getting things done, we clearly stated that leadership influence is widely dispersed within universities.

The point we were trying to convey is that while there is much talk of participative and inclusive leadership in higher education, to some extent this can be perceived as rhetorical and masking the realities of executive power.

In conclusion, our overall argument was not so much that there is a "deficit" of leadership but that structures, systems and identities may sometimes contradict one another so that the role of manager-academic feels uncomfortable and/or disempowered.

The overall findings on which this paper was based will be published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education later this month.

Richard Bolden
Research fellow
Centre for Leadership Studies Exeter University.

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