Transformative leaders are crucial in today’s world

More than ever before, universities have a critical role to play in offering students a solid education that will prepare them adequately for the labour market and make them responsible citizens in the world. It is an essential mission of every university to provide graduates with cutting-edge knowledge and the right skill set that will enhance their employability.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In its January 2018 White Paper Eight Futures of Work: Scenarios and their implications the World Economic Forum (WEF) argues that automation (robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things) is developing at such an unprecedented rate that it is having a major impact on virtually every industry. These developments are leading to significant changes to jobs, to the nature of tasks to be performed and to the skills required.

At the same time labour mobility, migration, demographic changes, new models for the delivery of education changes and the global thirst for talent that is most acutely felt in infrastructure, healthcare and education are having a profound impact on the nature of work.

The WEF argues that governments, businesses, academic institutions and individuals must work together for a positive future of work. Many jobs will disappear, yet many new jobs will be created, requiring highly specialised expertise and constant worker upskilling.

It is very far from ‘business as usual’ for universities whose key mission is to educate the leaders and managers of tomorrow who can maximise the potential associated with these changes in increasingly complex environments.

Beyond knowledge delivery, teaching and learning needs to focus on producing graduates who will go beyond the status quo and have the cognitive flexibility to deal with complex problems and the entrepreneurial mindset to transform knowledge into innovative products, services or solutions.

Graduates should also emerge from university with the right social skills that will turn them into responsible citizens who will have a strong impact on society and in the workplace in increasingly multicultural environments.

The current disrupted world demands speed of response, flexibility and institutional agility to respond to new current societal challenges such as immigration, an ageing population or the rise of populism in the Western world.

External competitors

Universities as organisations also need to embrace change in their own strategic developments and modes of operation. The concept of a university as ‘the only place’ for learning and research may need to be reinvented in the future. Knowledge is available everywhere and offered in many different forms by new providers such as the McKinsey Academy, LinkedIn Learning or Amazon Education, to name just a few. Much research is produced outside academia.

If higher education institutions are to thrive in the long term in increasingly competitive and global markets, they require agile academic leaders and managers who have clearly understood the need for profound transformations.

Yet many struggle in the face of cuts in public budget funding and increasing student numbers. How can they deliver effectively on relevant and impactful research and academic quality? How can they offer student-centred teaching and learning and design innovative curricula that integrate new knowledge based on cutting-edge research and skill development?

Having student employability and personal development at the top of their priorities is a key responsibility for universities.

Civic leaders

Between the executive and the more collegial governance models, senior academic leaders are often ill prepared to take on significant roles as ‘CEOs’ of large and complex operations like universities that involve important financial duties and major responsibilities to lead both people and large infrastructure projects to support education and research.

They may struggle to take on significant responsibilities and to find the right balance between strong leadership and engagement with ‘the academic heartland’.

Transformative leaders inspire their executive teams and are able to gain support for their ambitious visions. They engage with stakeholders, connecting closely with students and their parents, working with government and local as well as global corporate players.

They see the university as a strong driver for economic growth in their region and country. Others are eager to be perceived as leaders of ‘civic universities’, maximising the university’s contribution to civil society as a whole.

Talent management

Transformative leaders must support academic initiatives and individual enterprise with strong professional services. In departments and faculties as well as ‘in the centre’, traditional ‘administrative’ services are no longer sustainable. Academics and students require high-quality access to technology, equipment, infrastructure and excellent support services.

Attracting and retaining talent is probably one of the major challenges in today’s academic enterprise, with talent flowing all around the world to find the best opportunities.

Yet talent management is often underdeveloped in universities with too few resources available for people management. The same applies to succession planning or skills planning for future institutional needs and preparing for new developments related to automation or artificial intelligence.

Higher education institutions need vision, strategy and direction and the transformative leaders who are able to deliver them.

Nadine Burquel is an international higher education expert and European Foundation for Management Development director of business school services.