Three principles for leadership in academia

Reflecting on her personal journey, Catherine Moran shares the key guidelines that have shaped her leadership as a woman in higher education in times of change

Catherine Moran's avatar
5 Mar 2024
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Higher education has undergone significant transformation in the past several years and will continue to do so. Societal and technological disruptions as well as an evolving student demographic have compelled universities to respond rapidly and meaningfully. As a deputy vice-chancellor of a university that focuses on accessible, flexible and future-focused education, I see the ability to lead change as instrumental to my role.

Change can be invigorating, but too much change, especially if managed poorly, can leave people feeling overwhelmed and disempowered. I have key principles that I have used to navigate and lead change. They are not particularly special, but I remind myself of them as I embark on new projects, whether it be designing a curriculum or embracing digital transformation in teaching.

Leadership principle 1: know where you are going and recognise when you get there

The first principle is: understand your destination – and know when you have arrived. That means having a clear vision of the outcome. It requires articulating what accessible education looks like, for instance, and how is it different from what we have always done. For the University of Canterbury (UC), that means ensuring that students who have been traditionally underserved can participate and complete their qualifications successfully and that common, and often systemic, barriers to success are removed. We will know we have achieved that when we see more Indigenous and other underserved students succeeding at the same rate as others.

While having a clear vision is crucial, it must also be shared and inclusive. A vision that does not reflect the values of others in the organisation will not be advanced.

Leadership principle 2: be present in your relationships with others

That leads to the second aspect critical to leadership: authentic relationships. Authentic relationships mean being inclusive and listening to and learning from diverse perspectives. Students, staff, alumni and the communities in which universities sit all bring varied perspectives. It is through relationships that those voices are heard and empowered and, in being so, they support the vision of the institution.

For instance, as our university has moved towards more technologically enhanced delivery, we must understand the needs of staff, students and the community. In doing this, we have created a new curriculum supported by industry and delivered online courses and programmes that meet the needs of the students and staff.

Changing the way things are done is never easy, but I have found that the strength of the interpersonal and working relationships across the university have been key to a strong network of support.

Leadership principle 3: be accountable for your decisions

My final reflection on leadership is also relates to authenticity, and that is to be accountable. I have found that through owning decisions – both the ones that go well and those that do not – integrity and trust are fostered. It gives room for others to be empowered to do the leading in their own sphere and to bring new ideas that might challenge the direction.

Taking responsibility is not always easy; however, much good can come from doing so. Being willing to be accountable gives room to make change and move in a different direction. It reduces the need for perfection and instead builds transparency and resilience.

International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in academia while acknowledging the challenges many have faced. I have been lucky in my journey in higher education. I moved to New Zealand early in my academic career and found a country with an impressive history of women in leadership. They include Dame Whina Cooper, who led the fight for Māori land rights; Kate Sheppard, who came to Canterbury from the UK and led the movement for voting rights for women; and three female prime ministers, who now operate on a global stage. Since its founding in 1873, UC has welcomed women students as trailblazers – including Bessie Te Wenerau Grace, the first Māori woman to earn a degree.

My career also has no shortage of mentors and aspirational leaders in the present day. UC recently celebrated its 150th anniversary under the leadership of two women, chancellor Amy Adams and vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey.

Leadership is a privilege and, despite the challenges, incredibly rewarding. Leading with integrity, authenticity and a vision that is values based provides the foundation for leading change. I hope that by sharing my thoughts and experiences, I can inspire those who aspire to leadership roles in higher education or elsewhere. I would love to encourage more women to see their future without limits. Leadership is not a destination but a journey, and if we can share kindness along the way, we can build our own authentic culture of success for others to join, emulate and embrace.

Catherine Moran is deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of Canterbury.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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