Scholars in the lead

August 25, 2016

Thank you to the anonymous writer for raising the issue of useless headhunters (“Useless management headhunters damage academic leadership”, Opinion, 18 August). In 2014, the executive recruiter Odgers Berndtson circulated a brochure titled “21st century academic leadership: from the lecture hall or the boardroom?” asking whether a “new kind of leadership” was needed (“Are scholars or executives best suited to lead universities?”, News, 16 January 2014). The “new leadership” they were proposing was to put business people into vice-chancellor positions. I imagine they were doing this for exactly the reason raised by this author: to expand their potential leader-offerings to universities.

The importance of hiring really good scholars to lead other scholars was first shown in the 1960s by sociologists Frank Andrews and George Farris. Many years later, I researched the issue. In longitudinal data, I found that UK universities improved in their performance when they were led by top scholars. Academics who moved into administrative positions early in their academic careers and non-academics performed the least well. Colleagues and I have now found the same pattern among chairs of academic departments, and in other settings such as hospitals, Formula 1, football, basketball and in random samples of US and UK employees matched with employers. In new research we are beginning to understand why they make better leaders and managers: they create the right work environment, improve job satisfaction, appropriately assess and support, and so forth. So the research is all there – the headhunters really should read it. We need expert leaders not professional managers.

Amanda Goodall
Cass Business School

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