In the feature “Leading lights” (4 May), Agnes Bäker and Amanda Goodall make an excellent and spot-on argument that the best academics make the best heads of department, which applies even higher up the academic management chain.
It is interesting to note how few senior university leaders have any knowledge of even the most basic of management scholarship (they certainly know less than your average MBA from an average institution). Being unversed in many very basic ideas, they rely increasingly on consultants, search firms and “professional” staff to fill them in on things, with those groups ultimately driving the direction of university strategies. Because these groups are themselves hardly leading edge, you end up with rather weak and unjustified logics driving strategy and operations (eg, SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – which I ban in my MBA classes because I view it as little more than a Substantial Waste of Time) and the inevitable pendulum of centralisation and decentralisation of services.
I recently had a discussion with some senior university managers about Alfred Chandler. I could tell immediately that they had never heard of Chandler (which would be like a chemist not knowing Joseph Priestley). My point with them was that Chandler first articulated the idea that strategy needed to precede structure – that is, you build your structure to drive through your strategy – while at universities we allow structure to drive strategy – doing little more than reinforcing the existing viewpoints and power structures, thus removing any ability to change direction successfully.
You can manage people in a combination of two ways. One is that you can be a very competent manager who is not a role model but understands that fact and works to ensure that the people to whom they are responsible – who are far more talented in the key operational areas of scholarship and teaching – are given the environment and resources to succeed. The second is that you can be an inspiration and role model who understands the demands of the profession and works to represent and guide others. Unfortunately, the skills are not compensatory, and the best leaders need to be able to do both.