Heroic leadership is a campus villain

Lord Sugar and Donald Trump may disagree, but kindness works best in higher education management, says Mike Thomas

August 2, 2018
Illustration by Luke Brookes (2 August 2018)
Source: Luke Brookes

Anyone who has watched The Apprentice in the UK will be familiar with Lord Sugar as the personification of what effective leadership looks like. Emanating masculine bravado and an intimidating scowl, it’s rare that the electronics entrepreneur openly exhibits anything resembling kindness, compassion or empathy on screen.

That was even more true of Donald Trump’s long prepresidential stint hosting the US version of the programme. He seemed to take positive pleasure in pointing an accusatory finger across the boardroom and saying: “You’re fired!”

Both Sugar and Trump embody the “heroic model” of corporate leadership: the idea that a charismatic and domineering talisman is what is required to galvanise workers to generate commercial success. Subscribers to this theory are willing to excuse a lot in the behaviour of such leaders. Steve Jobs is another example. Former associates of the late Apple chief executive recall a leadership style that bordered on tyrannical, yet that didn’t prevent him from acquiring an almost messianic status as he revolutionised consumer electronics.

But the success stories of Sugar, Trump and Jobs are high-profile anomalies. The great majority of the world’s most successful businesses have been led by leaders who placed enormous value on treating their employees with kindness and dignity. Most of the companies that managed to survive the economic catastrophe of 2008 refrained from exercising austerity, slashing their research and development headcount or firing their marketing departments. Instead, they held firm in their commitment to nurturing and developing their staff.

In recent times, many universities have tried to import the heroic leadership model from the corporate world. New brooms have instituted major change projects that have sometimes overemphasised efficiency at the expense of educational quality, staff morale and trust between managers and their teams. This has prompted significant numbers of staff to take their vital skills, knowledge and experience elsewhere.

Universities are not capitalist enterprises, and leaders forget this at their peril. Business models purloined from the private sector will always be an uneasy fit. We occupy a distinct position in society, straddling elements of the private, public and charitable spheres. We’re independently governed, have active commercial interests, and derive the greatest portion of our teaching income from student choice, but we’re public in the sense that we derive some of our funding from taxation and state-provided student loans, and our charitable status relates to the fact that we work for the greater benefit of society. In the case of institutions like mine, our goal is specifically to open up access to higher education among traditionally disadvantaged groups. The pursuit of money will never be our be-all and end-all.

So, rather than the heroic model, I’m an advocate of the “stewardship model”. University leaders are “keepers of the flame”: custodians of institutions that are more important than any one individual. During our tenure, we are charged with ensuring that our institutions continue to succeed in their remits to offer people the life-changing benefits of higher education and enable them to achieve their potential. These values are important because they provide the foundation of our activities.

Even the world’s top private sector firms are starting to realise that adopting an altruistic ethos is not only the right thing to do but also has a positive impact on their bottom lines. Organisations operating under a “macho” culture may enjoy a surge of productivity at first, but this typically lasts for only about three years. Staff quickly burn out, and many leave, taking their expertise and institutional memory with them. And we’re beginning to see that non-profit organisations have higher productivity rates than many private sector firms; this has been attributed to colleagues having shared values, a sense of togetherness and being committed to philanthropic goals.

Kindness, compassion and trust should shine through in our everyday lives at all levels of a university. Fun and goodwill are also important. I want colleagues and students to enjoy coming to campus, to be cheerful in their daily work and to be good to each other. 

These values are not just pie in the sky. I’ve seen them in action all over my own university in recent months. Last October’s “Acts of Kindness Day”, for instance, saw hundreds of staff go out into our city, Preston, to do good deeds and spread goodwill. But our efforts go far beyond the local; a good example is our recent effort to accommodate hundreds of students from the hurricane-hit American University of the Caribbean.

Lord Sugar and Donald Trump may delight in acerbic soundbites and leadership through fear, and it makes great television. But as Trump, in his new job, puts his particular stamp on the world, the case for universities to exhibit kindness and compassion is only strengthened.

Mike Thomas is vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire. 


Print headline: Heroic leaders do not make good captains of industry or campuses

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Reader's comments (1)

I'm surprised there haven't been more comments on this piece. Perhaps everyone is on holiday. It's great to see the idea of humane and kind leadership being discussed, especially by someone who has done primary research in the field. A welcome challenge to a more prevalent macho management style. Liz Morrish