When the buck stops with you

June 2, 2006

If you need to become a 'born leader' overnight, says Harriet Swain, you must understand the culture of the group you'll be heading, encourage collaboration at all levels, say what you mean and do what you say.

They know you're clever. They know you have meetings with lots of important people. They know you're in charge. Why won't they just do what you say?

Have you tried asking them? "It is crucially important to engage as a leader," says Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. "That means being prepared to listen to others and connect widely across the institution's communities, both internally and externally."

He says leadership always seems to work better if it is seen as a team effort. Developing leadership in a project or senior management team is just as important as investing in individual leaders.

Michael Shattock, joint director of the masters in higher education management at the Institute of Education, says higher education is particularly dependent on distributed leadership rather than having a charismatic figure at the top. "Any organisation that is made up almost entirely of professionals needs to be handled in a way that gives professionals their head to some extent," he says.

Shattock argues that good universities tend to have fairly flat management structures, which encourage diversity and personal initiative. He says that this is helped by effective communication, by encouraging people to come forward with ideas and by providing a governance system in which it is clear that the vice-chancellor is looking for leadership at all levels.

Diana Ellis, head of the education practice at headhunters Odgers Ray and Berndtson, says you need to be able to communicate a strategy and ensure that it becomes a reality using a bit of persuasion. You also need to be able to devise that strategy in the first place, to be able to make decisions and to delegate.

Funding is key, she says. You have to be imaginative and persuasive in diversifying income streams. You also need to start seeing students as clients and focus on their needs and the quality of their experience.

Shattock says that most successful universities nevertheless still tend to be led by people who are distinguished scholars. "That person needs to understand scholarly activity," he says. "If universities are about the core business of teaching and research, then the person leading a university should excel at the core business."

But Wooldridge says it is important to regard the process of leadership as worthwhile in its own right. "Those with an academic background have a tendency to see leadership responsibilities as a duty to be performed but of a lower order than the research or teaching roles the academic normally performs," he says.

He says you need to understand yourself as a leader and your impact on others, via simultaneous boss, subordinate and peer review, for example.

Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, says higher education leaders must "recognise the collegiality of a university as an institution".

One of the roles of a leader of an academic institution is to reconcile a range of conflicting interests, he says. "It is about acknowledging the plurality of a higher education institution and working with that plurality, not trying to impose things."

Keight says you have to recognise the need to provide academic staff with the scope to develop their own teaching and research and ensure that they have the necessary supportive environment in which to do this. This means stimulating their creativity and innovation rather than stultifying it through bureaucratic demands.

Leaders who confuse their individual objectives with institutional goals are doomed to failure, he warns. Resist the temptation for "ego-driven change" and forget the idea that you need to make your mark in the first 100 days, in the manner of Franklin D. Roosevelt. "If you are changing the political agenda after a general election, that may have validity," he says. "But if you are taking over the management of a large collegiate institution, you have to make sure that you understand the institution rather than charging into dramatic changes."

What you must do, he adds, is spend time in the institution listening to what happens there rather than spending too much time in meetings off campus.

Wooldridge stresses that there is no simple formula for leadership in higher education. "My overriding advice to prospective vice-chancellors and principals is to understand the culture of your institution extremely well and to adapt your leadership style to those circumstances," he says. "Even if you wish to change the culture, you have to start from this point of understanding as a first step." It is also important to be willing to cross boundaries from higher education into other sectors, he says, and to engage with your region and local communities and to get involved in international activities.

Keight says good leadership in higher education comes down to basic things such as "being honest, saying what you mean and doing what you say".

Neil Ralph, programme director of the strategic leadership programme at Lancaster University Management School, says personal integrity and authenticity are critical attributes for leaders. A consistent set of behaviours driven by a clear set of values, personal vision and principles fosters commitment at all levels of an organisation, he says.

If you feel you don't quite measure up to this ideal, do not give up hope.

Shattock says there is evidence to suggest that most successful companies in industry are led by grey, unimpressive people who nevertheless have developed the leadership knack. "I don't think leaders are born," he says.

"I think it is something developed over a career."

Further information The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education: www.leadership-he.com


Understand your institution

Resist the urge to make ego-driven change

Help to develop leadership in others

Be financially aware

Understand what being a scholar is about and foster it

Be honest

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