Leaders, use your head for more than wearing a crown

Even Machiavelli’s advice to princes spoke to the value of emotional intelligence, argues Paula Nicolson

February 27, 2014

Dale Edwin Murray illustration ( February 2014)

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

University leadership is not a personal fiefdom. As vice-chancellor, senior manager, chief administrator, lecturer or union rep you are part of a system

The advice of Niccolò Machiavelli might not be something most rank-and-file academics would want their superiors to embrace.

Yet incoming managers would do well to reflect on the words of the author of The Prince concerning governing cities or principalities that had lived under their own laws before they were annexed. The three options, he said, were to ruin them, to reside there and share their values or to permit them to continue to live under their own laws.

How might this apply to the world of higher education? Few would recommend the first course of action, so to succeed as an academic manager you need your underlings to understand that you will seek to achieve at least a minimal agreement about the way in which the institution should be governed.

Today, such an approach to leadership might be said to demonstrate emotional intelligence. It certainly contrasts with the endless torrent of popular rhetoric, welded into the unimaginative thought-streams of public commentators, that the key to successfully running all organisations – including universities – is strong “leadership”.

In a study of leadership in the NHS, my colleagues and I found that poor leadership was closely related to lack of emotional and social intelligence, including resistance to distributing leadership and authority across the system. Leaders need to be fully engaged with their colleagues, whether they be at the same level or more junior; to acknowledge the context in which everyone works; and to understand and attend to the system, its tasks and its boundaries. I would suggest that this is even more true for universities than it is for the health service. The results of Times Higher Education’s recent Best University Workplace Survey indicate that there may be some room for improvement in this area: almost half of academics responding (46 per cent) disagreed with the statement “the leadership of my university is performing well”.

Applying emotional intelligence to management and leadership does not imply doing away with rationality – or, worse, engaging in “feminine” thinking. One male pro vice-chancellor once sneered to me that he had no desire to attend to marital crises or premenstrual tension among his colleagues. Meanwhile, a female head of department told me that she had tried desperately to like her staff but it hadn’t worked: she knew that some of them had competence issues and let down their students, which made her angry.

But, as I told them both, emotional intelligence is at least as much about surviving as a manager as it is about dealing with the personal problems of your staff.

It is about recognising your own emotional reactions to what happens under your leadership. For instance, one female head of department told me that she always checked her mood and emotional state before leaving the car park every time she arrived at work. If she didn’t, she feared that she could “begin the day screaming at a colleague because I have had a late night or agreeing to something ridiculous because I had just enjoyed giving a lecture”.

But you do also need to be able to manage the emotions of others. So when a colleague is faced with a personal tragedy or competence issue, the emotionally and socially intelligent leader will ensure that the person is supported to make their work realistic until their crisis is resolved. This may seem like common sense, but tell that to the senior manager who once told me: “I make the rules here and I think he should be taking on a full workload – even if his mother is dying.” That manager was gradually undermined because the staff saw that none of them would be supported if they themselves were to suffer a temporary personal setback.

Having emotional intelligence enables managers to be creative and get the best out of themselves and those they manage. They are also more likely to get helpful and thoughtful advice from colleagues, rather than mindless agreement from those who fear for their position if they don’t toe the line.

University leadership is not equivalent to a personal fiefdom. As vice-chancellor, senior manager, chief administrator, lecturer, technician, union rep or head of department you are part of a system. That system has primary and subsidiary tasks and goals, and its members should have reasonably clearly defined roles in relation to attaining them. A ship’s captain, for example, will be expected to have consulted his senior crew prior to taking any major decisions.

The buck does stop at the top, but a leader who engages with the “followers” and is endorsed by the system is less likely to be toppled at the slightest tremor or washed away by the smallest wave.

So bear Machiavelli’s advice for non-hostile governance in mind. Know the limits of those who work in your organisation and don’t try to get them to aim further or higher than they can naturally reach. If you take over an institution in a hostile way, ignoring the long-standing arrangements and channels of authority, taking loyalty for granted because you are the boss, those who are ill-disposed will find the opportunity to attack like partisans while others will defend you, but in a lukewarm way. Vive le Prince (et la Princesse).

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