What counts for effective leadership in higher education?

There is a vast body of literature that has examined the area of leadership. Varying studies talk of leadership as being based on a bond of trust and sincerity and the ability to make wise decisions. ‘True’ leadership is characterised by not being afraid to make the hard decisions. It is also typified by the capacity to stay calm in the face of a crisis and to take criticism and even failure as an opportunity to learn.

Good leaders inspire, they are good listeners, are honest in dealings with others and, just as importantly, in the messages they relay. They also display flexibility and active involvement in their institution’s operations and are clear in their expectations about what needs to be done.

All of these characteristics are just as valid for effective leadership in higher education. Leadership is one of the most important factors in any institution’s future.

However, leaders in higher education, perhaps more so than in many other organisations, have the interests of a multitude of sometimes contrary stakeholders to consider, influence and impact, including students, academic staff, administrative staff, departmental heads and government and education authorities. They need to demonstrate the ability to work respectfully and effectively with a sizeable diversity of people and viewpoints.

The pressures facing academic leaders today are many as competition for students intensifies, reporting expectations increase, more private higher education players enter the market and pressure mounts to boost non-governmental funding sources. Academic leadership in the higher education sector is inclusive of teaching, learning, research, scholarship, organisational culture, mission, strategic direction, policy and everything related.

Academic leaders need to ensure their institution has the facility to respond quickly and constructively to the almost constant challenges it faces. To do this they need to lead by positioning and most significantly implementing effective change through creating a supportive working environment for their staff – one that fosters and sustains the required changes and also allows for successful implementation of new initiatives.

Different leaders at different times

In Ancient Greece, a good leader was expected to have ethos, pathos and logos. Those three attributes are just as relevant today. A good leader should have ethos – that is, good moral character – along with pathos – namely, the ability to move people emotionally. These should be complemented by logos – the ability to give solid reasons for an action and-or change, in other words, the ability to move people intellectually.

Every organisation that has been in operation for a while has a history based on the people who make up that organisation and the relationships among members as well as its vision, mission and who has been at the helm to lead and see that vision be realised. At different times in the organisation’s history different leadership skill sets are deemed more valuable than others.

Context is another important element to take into consideration.

A higher education institution that has just come out of a major restructure and is starting to see a positive impact of that change could probably invest in installing a leader who continues to steer the organisation calmly and steadily for a few years rather than someone who engages in a process of further change that causes additional and probably premature disruption.

That institution may be better served by a gentler leadership approach that foregrounds relationships and builds these to support and refine the new structure and (re)build the teams to move the whole organisation forward.

On the other hand, if the organisation has been led for some time by a ‘soft’ leader who was keen to be liked by all, someone who kept things ticking along, who put little emphasis on either compliance with and enhancement of existing systems, policy and process or had little appetite to introduce new ideas, then a replacement leader could be someone who initiates changes to position the organisation strongly for the future.

A connected leader

A good leader also surrounds herself with excellent people. It is most always tempting to surround oneself with like-minded people who agree with your point of view. That means a seamless, conflict-free change process from conception to implementation. But in the end this approach does not yield the worthiest results for the institution.

It is also time to take stock when a leader creates an executive team and then removes all connection between herself and the running of the organisation, including the heads of various units, and relies solely on advice provided by the small team of executives.

It is an arrogant and unwise leader who negates the vast amount of corporate knowledge and understanding that resides in the various areas of the organisation. Worse is the leader who then abrogates all responsibility for leading significant structural changes to her ‘deputy’.

The leader must be present every step of the way. The leader must explain why decisions are being taken and allay staff concerns as they transition through uncertainty. The organisation, including close external stakeholders, need to see strong decision-making based on sound research and innovative thought.

There should be effective and regular communication of the proposed changes, including the cooperative involvement of the organisation’s unit leaders. The latter have the critical role of being encouraging about the change taking place, selling it to staff and further dispelling concerns.

Succession planning

I have worked with a variety of academic leaders, some unexceptional, some quite appalling, but pleasingly I have also encountered some really inspiring leaders. They had high standards, a strong vision, were creative, smart and honest and, although tough, always fair. They were able to introduce innovative practices and implement them successfully and sustainably.

They also demonstrated thorough action succession planning initiatives, something that definitely needs more attention within the higher education sector.

It is important for the future of higher education to identify those who demonstrate leadership talent, to mentor and provide them with leadership development and ‘on-the-job’ learning opportunities. Such planning would assuredly contribute to enriching the ongoing effectiveness of leadership in the sector.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.