Taking the lead

August 18, 2016

The need to “build bridges” in the right places is key to future success for many universities (“Could accepting a Poppleton view of the campus build bridges?”, News, 4 August). However, the academic-administrative bridge is not the only connecting interface that might need attention. Better connecting the university to the city region, fostering university-industry collaboration, excelling at interdisciplinary research, building multi-university collaborations and developing strategically significant international partnerships are all important bridges that might need work. An inability to prioritise the important things risks focusing on too much with too little, creating a scattergun effect that can suck in resources and produce systemic mediocrity.

A risk in responding to external threat or opportunity is that institutions become fragmented and trapped in silos. This privileges tribal behaviour. It accentuates the divides between academics and administrators and pits units against each other in a fight for resources while the overarching purpose of the university is obscured.

It is bridge-building leaders who are able to produce the conditions in which independence and interdependence can successfully co-exist and flourish.

I have observed these bridge-building leaders at work. They talk about fostering a “one university approach” in which all staff need to be focused upon the purpose and strategic priorities of the university. They talk about the connections that need to be made throughout their institutions. They are not obsessed with power, control and vanity but focus on helping their institutions to make a positive difference on the world. They talk about the university as an agent of societal and economic improvement and public good. They celebrate world-changing research and student learning and achievement. They abhor mediocrity. This selfless but focused approach to leadership seems to be far more effective at winning hearts and minds than any amount of clever oratory, spin or rhetoric.

As universities clarify their purpose they are likely to need more bridge-builders to connect things up and make things work.

Richard Sharpe
Director, Elementa Leadership, Swindon

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