Posted tagged ‘leadership’

Universities and the leadership riddle

November 6, 2018

For 18 years, between 2000 and 2018, I held the leadership position in two universities. During that time I was interviewed several times by journalists and student reporters, and the one question I always found particularly difficult to answer was this: what was my ‘leadership style’? I never really saw myself as having a ‘style’ of leadership, and if I did it was a more appropriate question for others to answer than for me.

Leadership models can in part be defined by the constraints of the office. German university heads – Rectors (not used in the Scottish sense) – are usually elected and occupy, for a limited period, a position of ceremonial leadership rather than managerial authority. The Provost of Trinity College Dublin is also elected, but as the Provost also chairs the university’s Board, he or she can exercise very significant control over strategy and administration. In higher education institutions more generally, the impact of governing bodies can vary significantly, with implications for executive leadership.

Institution heads also face very different expectations by faculty and staff. But what are these expectations, and how are they expressed? An American study recently found that senior university staff expected their Presidents to exercise ‘transformational leadership’, and that institutions with such leadership tended to be in the top ranks of league tables. On the other hand, the Guardian newspaper in Britain recently reported a recruitment consultant as saying that university heads were now expected to have ‘the ability to engage with all stakeholders and to want to work in partnership with them and to do so in a low ego way.’

Of course all of this is tied up with the continuing debate about what kind of organisations universities are, and how the community of staff and students should interact with leaders to determine and implement institutional vision and policy. This in turn is complicated by governance, which is necessary for accountability but which often injects its own expectations, based on the external experience and insights of governors.

Over the past decade or two universities in a number of countries have been hit by bureaucratic and financial pressures that have prompted a fast pace of change, with universities scrambling to meet stakeholder demands while rarely having the time to consider calmly whether they were doing this in an optimum way. It has often been said that this has produced an atmosphere of low morale; but is probably more accurate to say that it produced organisational fatigue with some restlessness. Fine-tuning a leadership model in all of this has not been easy.

It is unlikely that universities can still take their time to come up with strategy based on verifiable institution-wide consensus. It is equally unlikely that university communities will for ever accept the formulation of strategy as a leadership prerogative. The tsunami of audit and review mechanisms makes it very hard for this balance to be got right, but sooner or later this must be allowed to happen. Sooner, I hope.

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Higher education leadership – for sharing?

September 25, 2017

Shared leadership has become a popular (if not always well understood) concept in recent times, and has been a topic of analysis within higher education. The academy was traditionally seen as a collegiate body in which a ceremonial primacy was granted to one of its own in return for collegiality in decision-making and governance. But that social contract came under stress some time ago, particularly as universities started to see themselves as business entities that needed to be competitive; and a whole new framework was constructed around that assessment, with corporate leadership at its pinnacle.

Of course every such trend produces a backlash, and in this case a tsunami of critiques crashed in rejecting the marketisation of higher education and the corporate practices thought to accompany it: dictatorial leadership, unresponsiveness to dissent, bad communication, over-valuation of managerial status and responsibility. And here is where, for some, the answer to all this is the idea of ‘shared leadership’, in which governance and decision-making is informed both by managerial judgement and an empowered wider body of people. This position has been developed in an interesting report sponsored by the American Council on Education (Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice, by Adrianna J. Kezar and Elizabeth M. Holcombe, University of Southern California) . The report suggests that organisations with shared leadership are ‘better able to learn, innovate, perform, and adapt to the types of external challenges that campuses now face.’ The key elements of such an approach are listed as ‘team empowerment, supportive vertical or hierarchical leaders, autonomy, shared purpose or goal, external coaching, accountability structures, interdependence, fairness of rewards, and shared cognition.’

Conceptually this isn’t easy. For those strongly dissenting from the strategic direction of an organisation, it is much more attractive to call for an ‘off-with-their-heads’ approach to unresponsive leaders, although such calls rarely lead to actual revolution and are more likely to result in truculent disengagement. For those at the top who have been persuaded that they are strong leaders, sharing their power with others can look like weakness. And then there is the lesson of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose desire to share leadership with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia ends in tears.

Higher education has changed fundamentally since it ceased to be something that catered for the formation of social elites, and it cannot return to the forms of governance of that era. But shared leadership may offer a formula of success for the present age, dispensing with the idea of a ‘leader-follower binary’ and focusing instead on ‘how those in power can delegate authority, capitalize on expertise within the organization, and create appropriate infrastructure so that organizations can capitalize on the leadership of multiple people.’ This is a model universities and their leaders should consider much more seriously.

The un-managed university: could it survive and prosper?

May 25, 2010

During ten years spent working for a particular university earlier in my career (and there is no hint in the statement, as I have worked for 10 years for each of my academic employers), I amused myself by trying to find out where university-wide decisions were actually taken. Of course I knew the constitutional position, and was well aware of the committee or council or board that had the final say in any particular issue. But on the whole I was convinced that the issues were decided long before they got to these particular forums, and I wanted to find out who was deciding, and where, and when, and how they were able to navigate their decisions through the formal structures. I was never able to find the answer. Somehow all the obvious people and groups didn’t seem to be the originators. In the end I half came to the conclusion that decision-making in the university in question was really quite haphazard and subject to no identifiable pattern, and that as a result the development of future policies was highly unpredictable. Subsequent insights into the institution in question have tended to confirm my views.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the university didn’t take decisions. In fact, its leadership was astute and (I believe) benign, and they did what is done in most universities: plans and policies were allowed to ‘bubble up’ through informal discussions and were then negotiated through the formal elements of the system, with the champion for each proposal spending time recruiting and convincing supporters. In this way the university continued to do some new things, but it could not be said that these new things were part of any overall strategic design. They happened opportunistically and sporadically, and often they were not particularly compatible with each other.

It is often suggested that this somewhat anarchic and unpredictable, but often quite democratic system came under pressure as university presidents started to get ideas above their station and began to fancy themselves as corporate chief executives. In this view of the university as it is thought to have developed over the past decade or two, senior managers bought into corporate thinking and commercial principles. They started to sideline or ignore formal decision-making structures and just got on with implementing their policies without bothering much to secure anyone’s consent, and more particularly, without paying much attention to long-standing academic values. The consequence of this, as it is seen by some dissenters in particular, is that decisions are taken without proper support and without adequate analysis, and faculty and staff are kept in line by the imposition of a mindless bureaucracy that takes the edge off reasoned opposition. In Ireland this is, I think, the essence of the view that has been put forward by academics such as UCD’s Tom Garvin, as has been discussed in this blog.

Outside the academy, a wholly different picture of the university has been taking hold of influential opinion. Under this perspective, universities are chaotic places where individuals can refuse to carry out their work with impunity, where urgent national needs are willfully ignored, where under-performing academics neglect students, and where the work-shy hide behind the banner of ‘academic freedom’ at the first sign of trouble. And those who hold this view are now beginning to say, ‘hang on, we’ll solve this problem for you, we’ll establish an academy that works to explicit national priorities and that is monitored and controlled from the centre’ (whatever that may be). And that’s where we may now be heading.

If we want to take the view that this is an undesirable direction for us, we need to understand certain things. First, we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training. Today’s students generally have a much more tactical and career-oriented approach to what they are doing in college, and they expect to see that reflected in how they are taught and treated. Universities have in fact adapted quite well to that in the portfolio of programmes they offer, but not always in the style and methods of their pedagogy. There is still a kind of inherited nostalgia for a past golden age, without perhaps having a proper appreciation that the golden age in question involved what we must now consider a socially unacceptable framework for education.

Secondly, universities now need to make a coherent and aggressively defended case for themselves. They need to be able to demonstrate to those who may give or withhold funds that they have strategic aims that are worth supporting; and to do that they need to have agreed strategic aims in the first place, and they need to be able to show that these are being implemented systematically. The idea of an essentially un-managed university in which something may happen, or it may not, in relation to whatever the issue happens to be is no longer sustainable. The claim by faculty to senior managers that ‘what I do is none of your business’ is neither workable nor likely to protect the sustainability of the institution.

Thirdly, we cannot turn up our noses at money. If we want to do anything, and in particular if we want to do it well, we need resources. If we are failing to get those resources, then complaining that the government, or other backers, are behaving recklessly by not funding us is fine but is not an actual substitute for the money. We need to think intelligently about how we can maximise our income in ways that don’t compromise our integrity. And securing adequate revenues requires a coherent and well implemented plan.

On the other hand, universities are knowledge organisations staffed by fiercely intelligent and imaginative individuals, who are certainly not going to be anyone’s cannon fodder. Management can only work successfully if it has secured widespread consent, which in turn requires transparency, shared decision-making and respect for staff. It requires a very modern kind of leadership. And it is here that the success or failure of a university will increasingly be decided.

Universities today are under attack, and they need to be strong. The chaotic university cannot succeed in that setting. But neither can a bureaucratised dictatorship. Getting this balance right is the most important task for today’s higher education.

Leadership restored, we think…

February 8, 2009

Well, silly me – I missed the defining political event of the past week. I had planned to go to the big dinner given by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce at which Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen spoke from the gut and restored a sense of buzz around his leadership. Something had come up and I couldn’t go. The Taoiseach used the occasion to tell his audience (and the nation) some facts of life: living standards will go down by 10 per cent or more, and we had better get used to the idea. From the accounts of those present it was well delivered and showed both vision and determination. It was, it seems, the ‘rhetorical leadership‘ about which I wrote a few days ago. Or as one commentator put it, Cowen discovered his ‘inner Obama‘.

As I have noted before, I believe that Brian Cowen and his government are on the whole doing the right thing, but until now have been terrible at communicating it and conveying a sense of purpose and vision; maybe that is now being corrected. I would still add, however, that the vision must go beyond doom and gloom. By that I don’t mean that the government must tell us that there will be an end to the crisis some time. We all know that, and it is not breaking news. I mean that they must convey the idea of something big worth fighting for, something better, something different, something successful that will come within a timescale we can all expect to live to see. Saying that this generation may be more prosperous than the next (which the Taoiseach suggested was a possibility) is not it. People don’t get energised at the thought that the 12 per cent drop in living standards may eventually be modified to 8 per cent. They want a sense that there will be something better than anything that went before, not something a little less bad than we now fear.

But I won’t be churlish right now. This is not a bad turnaround. And I believe the universities (certainly mine) will be ready to help with the agenda.

Provosts and Presidents

January 23, 2009

Over the past week I have been reading the book by William Watts, A Memoir, which is the first autobiography by any Provost of Trinity College Dublin. Bill Watts led the College between 1981 and 1991, and for much of that time I was myself a rather bolshy junior lecturer there. The book describes his life and his tenure of the office of Provost, and it contains some interesting observations about the nature of university life and decision-making.

However, one of the curiosities of the book is that nowhere does Watts explain what the role of the Provost really is. The closest we get is in a passage under the heading ‘The Routine of Administration’, in which he writes as follows:

‘As Provost I was Chairman of the Board, the Council, the Site Development Committee, the Senior and Junior Promotions Committees and many others too numerous or ephemeral to mention. Decidedly the Provost is both by Statute and custom the College’s Chief executive. The buck stops with him and responsibilities are potentially heavy if things go wrong.’ (p. 101)

It is clear that Watts saw the main substance of his office to be in the chairing of committees, and he explains further that he saw it as his key objective to secure decisions on these by consensus. It is, I should add, the strong view of many associated with Trinity during this period that he performed this role very well, and the College experienced significant growth and development. Nevertheless, I suspect that not many current university heads in Ireland would quite describe their role in this way. In my own case, the mere thought of all those committees makes me wince; I am happy to say I chair only two, though I do attend some others when I can.

On the other hand, Bill Watts was Provost of Trinity before the Universities Act 1997 came into force. This statute provides in section 24 for a ‘chief officer’ (to be called ‘President’ or ‘Provost’ or such other title as the institution may choose), and Schedule 4 of the Act states:

‘The chief officer of a university shall, subject to this Act, manage and direct the university in its academic, administrative, financial, personnel and other activities and for those purposes has such powers as are necessary or expedient.’

There is in this, and other provisions of the Act, an understanding that the President has significant executive functions. Indeed the fairly wide definition of his or her powers in Schedule 4 has led some to argue that the Act runs counter to the traditional understanding of collegiate decision-making. One regular critic of the system, and indeed of the policies of a number of the current university heads, is Sean Barrett of Trinity College, who in 2007 wrote in a TCD student newspaper:

‘The heads contribute nothing to the academic success of Irish universities and their students. It is an appalling period in Irish universities. Those responsible are the heads.’

He, and others, have complained of growing ‘managerialism’ and centralisation of power through restructuring.

On the other hand, some external stakeholders of the university sector have suggested that reform and modernisation, initiated and supported by strong leadership, was an urgent necessity. Successive Ministers for Education have pushed this agenda.

Ultimately what is at issue here is probably not so much the function, power and role of university Presidents, but rather an understanding of what is expected of universities in these changing times and how the traditional academic ethos and culture should adapt. Universities are complex organisations that tend to work effectively only when space is given to collegiality and goodwill. On the other hand, traditional decision-making by a series of committees (as I have observed in a recent post) may no longer be responsive enough, so that the idea of the university head as a chairperson seeking consensus is unlikely to allow the institution to compete effectively in a high pressure environment. The trick is to provide decisive leadership while maintaining confidence and buy-in; a thoroughly difficult task, on the whole I believe more difficult than that facing most corporate CEOs.

The arguments and debates about structures and processes in universities during the current decade have revealed the faultlines in the system, and have perhaps been made more difficult by the absence of any forum in which a better understanding could be reached – and if possible shared – about how higher education institutions should be run. On the whole, I believe that the Irish universities are stronger and more agile than they were ten years ago; but they are also more tense and volatile places than they were. The reform processes, which I believe were necessary, probably still require a final phase in which a better understanding is reached of what in this new millennium constitutes a functionally effective, intellectually coherent and ethically sound higher education institution.