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Finding a balance: Leadership in a time of chaos

Peter Wolstencroft, Rob Kivits, and Leanne de Main look at a way for educational leaders to steer the ship in a less “one-size-fits-all” manner
This article is more than 2 years old

Dr Peter Wolstencroft works at Liverpool Business School, Liverpool John Moores University

Dr Rob Kivits, SFHEA, is Associate Head of School – Quality and Accreditation at Coventry University Business Faculty

Dr Leanne de Main is Associate Dean Academic at Leicester Castle Business School, De Montfort University, and the Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

“They control everything, how fast you work, when you work, even when you go to the bathroom, everything.”

This quote from Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford (1975) comes from an exploration into leadership within the automotive industry. The reality of life in a car factory at this time was a leadership style that stressed one-way communication and an approach that placed all power firmly with those at the top of the hierarchy.

Those working below the level of manager had one job and that was to follow orders; deviations or any form of freethinking was not permitted; instead, micro-management stopped anybody deviating from the overall plan.

Managing in challenging times

Leading others during a period of instability and ever-changing parameters demands a more dynamic and heterogenic style of leadership.

There is a requirement to have an element of control to steer the direction of the organisation in line with guidelines set by external agencies. Yet, on the other hand, staff need the space and flexibility to cope with the pace of change without additional pressure and stress from “the top”.

To empower and engage staff, there needs to be a culture of trust and delegated responsibility. In the current, turbulent environment that the education sector finds itself in, the search for a form of leadership that meets these challenges is of vital importance.

Despite the rise of a compliance culture ethos in education and the omnipresence of metrics within the sector, few academics would argue that Beynon’s described leadership is either present, or even possible, in most of higher education, despite any benefits it might bring in terms of consistency of approach.

The deeply established concept of professional judgment means that individuals are empowered to challenge things they disagree with and whilst there has been some evidence that universities have increased the use of mechanisms to ensure consistency and more overt checking of academics, few would argue that leadership techniques are similar to those described by Beynon.

Independent approach

At the other end of the leadership spectrum is what we have termed “prosecco leadership”, a style that stresses the autonomy of the individual and distances the leader from those lower in the hierarchy. In this model, academic freedom and autonomy is paramount and the leader is separated from everyone else, both physically and in terms of power and control, appearing only on sporadic occasions when really needed.

This approach borrows much from the well-established laissez-faire approach but adds the caveat that there is a physical divide (in recent times this has been a digital divide) between the two groups.

Superficially there is much to like about this form of leadership; academics are given considerable freedom to work in a way that suits them and whilst they can turn to leaders for support if needed, fundamentally they work independently.

The reality of this leadership approach tends to be a little less positive than the utopia described. In a paper about further education colleges in 2010, Robin Simmons described the inefficiencies and lack of professionalism that often occurred in the sector when a variant of this approach was used prior to the Further and Higher Education Act (1992) and the tendency is for a disconnect to occur between academics and the seemingly absent leader.

This leads to a lack of consistency and accountability in organisations, as well as feelings of isolation from academics who lack the reassurance and recognition that a good (and visible) leader might bring.

Present when needed

To bridge the gap between these two approaches, we are proposing an alternative approach that blends the benefits of these disparate styles. This approach, which we call Schrödinger’s Leadership, is one where the leader has a constant presence in the organisation but that presence is mostly controlled by the academic themselves and so leaders are used in different ways by each individual.

To illustrate the point, think about Betelgeuse, the titular character in the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice. Summoned only when his name is called three times, he is both present (if the person wants him) and absent (if they don’t).

The same principle applies in our model. The leader is present when needed but much of this control resides with the academic who can control their appearance.

This model has become increasingly important with the move to more flexible working, including hybrid working, according to Gemma Dale in her 2020 book Flexible Working.

During the pandemic, many of us were in the situation of working for a new employer for some time without having met many colleagues or in some cases, without having set foot on campus.

This distance (both physical and in some cases emotional) from the organisation creates challenges for leadership as each member of staff will react differently and hence a one-size-fits-all approach might not be appropriate. Whilst part of the leadership function revolves around creating structures to support staff, the shift to a hybrid style of working has necessitated a far more individual style of leadership.

Why it works

This approach does place significant demands on the educational leader. If leaders can be summoned with little notice, then the feeling of being “on call” can impact on any work/life balance and it is inevitable that some academics will require more time than others, so it is possible that feelings of unfairness or favouritism can start to show.

There are also questions about the skills that leaders need when adopting this style. Putting the onus on academics to interact with leaders means that those in charge need to have a multiplicity of skills given the different demands of individuals. Sometimes, that requires far more time and skill than a more uniform approach.

Despite these issues, we would argue that there are many benefits that can be accrued from the adoption of a Schrödinger Leadership approach. The concept of a leader being present, and only appearing when required, can create feelings of being supported but not constantly monitored.

The idea that leadership can mould itself to the individual is likely to address any concerns about leadership styles clashing with academics’ expectations.

Finally, adopting this approach can promote significant benefits in terms of the communication methods adopted by an organisation.

Whilst an approach based on the instant access to Betelgeuse might not be either feasible or desirable, encouraging two-way, direct communication when leaders and academics interact when they want to, rather than when they have to, can have significant benefits and is another reason why Schrödinger’s Leadership can have a transformative effect on today’s hybrid organisations.

One response to “Finding a balance: Leadership in a time of chaos

  1. “Despite the rise of a compliance culture ethos in education and the omnipresence of metrics within the sector, few academics would argue that Beynon’s described leadership is either present, or even possible, in most of higher education, despite any benefits it might bring in terms of consistency of approach.” Indeed the anarchic behaviours or many academics would make such management of them all but impossible, but academics are not the whole workforce.

    Those providing technical skills, admin staff and ‘bricks and sticks’ estates staff are very much treated as Beynon described, often by ex-armed forces NCO’s appointed as middle management selected more for the forelock tugging ability and grovelling respect displays to academics and higher management than actual management ability in many cases. Currently the in sector stress for many such staff is through the roof, with the still conspicuously absent higher management still ‘working from home’ not being exposed to Covid bearing students and staff in poorly ventilated dilapidated university buildings. And it’s not just leaders that can be summoned with little notice, with many non-academic staff being “on call” impact on their work/life balance is inevitable with the feelings of unfairness amplified by many universities placing them on ‘acrel’ grades to avoid paying ‘on-call’ compensation, travel costs and overtime, and as ‘acrel’ they don’t get any ‘time in lieu’ either.

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