Academics have little desire to become managers, with the result that universities are not being run as well as they could be, says the organisation set up to improve the quality of university leadership.
A report for the Leadership Foundation is likely to confirm a common perception in universities that some managers are little more than failed academics or glorified administrators.
The sector must raise the status of management roles, the report warns, and put in place proper "succession planning" to ensure that managers of the future are spotted and nurtured.
It adds that the sector needs to tackle "underperformers who block the career opportunities of talented people beneath them".
Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation, said an anti-managerial culture among academics was a key "conundrum" facing the sector.
Speaking to The Times Higher ahead of a landmark meeting on university leadership this week, he said: "In the hierarchy of things, for those who can do it the really high-quality research career is the top of the tree.
"In most other sectors in the public or private arena, the pinnacle is working towards a senior leadership role. We need to encourage people to attach the same esteem to a successful leadership career as they would to a successful research-based or learning and teaching-based career."
The report, launched at this week's meeting in London to mark the first anniversary of the Leadership Foundation, says that "people are not motivated by the prospect of a career change into a role that may be less intellectually challenging".
It quotes Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, who said: "Succession planning is essential and universities, on the whole, are not very good at it... because we are not very good at talent spotting."
The sector needs to "identify more role models" and to "change the perception that leadership means 'administration' and 'compliance'", says the report, which was compiled for the Leadership Foundation by the Work Foundation. Plans for action include "rebadging" undervalued administrative roles, calling them "professional services" or "professional support" instead, and creating more opportunities for job shadowing to give an insight into what leadership roles are like.
Mr Wooldridge said the message was beginning to get across. "Universities are generally having to take more seriously the process of equipping their leadership teams for the very complicated change agenda.
Higher Education Minister Kim Howells was expected to say at the meeting that the continued success of the sector depends on its leaders and that "major challenges lie ahead and the journey will often be turbulent".