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Finding the humanity in higher education leadership

A new report from Minerva and Wonkhe explores the human side of higher education leadership. Ben Tucker and Debbie McVitty explain why we should value the humanity in our VCs
This article is more than 4 years old

Ben is a Partner at Minerva, the executive recruitment agency.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Our report, I, vice chancellor: finding the humanity in higher education leadership, explores how institutional leaders exercise their humanity in looking after themselves, building shared values with their teams and community, and navigating challenging times for their universities.

The report is based on a series of in-depth interviews with heads of different kinds of institutions from across the UK, reflecting on their approach to leadership, and how they protect their humanity while being a vice chancellor or principal.

Higher education leadership is having a difficult moment. In the public debate, the only thing most people know about vice chancellors is that they are paid very well. Policy change in the last decade has significantly increased the pressure on institutional leadership, whether it’s increased competition for students and funding, rising costs, or new forms of public accountability. University staff feel these pressures acutely, too.

Leadership in tough times

Universities are highly complex organisations, and they are distinctive organisations. Leading a university is not like running a business, or a large charity, or even a public service, though it may have some commonalities with these.

When times are tough, high-quality leadership is essential, but arguably many in the university don’t entirely accept the premise that universities need leadership at all, and some are critical of what is frequently referred to as “managerialist” leadership that, by implication, deprioritises people in favour of centrally-mandated targets. Even where there is not a critical mass of outright sceptics, the tradition of academic leadership assumes that decisions happen (by and large) in public, and that those decisions are open to challenge.

What’s more, it’s not clear that every board of governors fully understands the extent to which the landscape for universities has changed, or is thinking carefully about the implications for what sort of leadership might be needed. As head of the institution, the vice chancellor embodies the university, and becomes accountable for its performance and its reputation in a way that, if not managed effectively, can accentuate traits like grandiosity and narcissism (traits that can frequently come across as dynamism and personal confidence to an inexperienced search committee), and lead the institution into tricky territory.

We’ve recently seen a series of high-profile cases where trust has broken down between institutional leaders and their boards. Though some of these instances are related to poor personal choices on the part of the vice chancellor, in others it’s clear that an institutional leader has taken the fall for a strategic misstep. Such situations can arise where there is a mismatch between what the head of institution has over-confidently promised – perhaps in response to demands from the board – and what is realistically deliverable.

Though we don’t think these incidents are indicative of a sector norm, we do think that there is a lack of models of a more human version of university leadership. We’re also not convinced that the human dimension of leadership is sufficiently recognised as a strength in navigating universities through challenges.

Only human

When we talk about “human” leadership, we mean it both in the sense of being fallible – and willing to acknowledge fallibility, and vulnerability – and in the sense of being capable of exercising empathy and connecting authentically with others.

With a sense of one’s own fallibility comes a willingness to accept and learn from challenge, and a preparedness to be honest about when things don’t go as planned. With emotional intelligence comes an openness to listening, a commitment to communication, and an awareness of the importance of self-care and a life beyond being a vice chancellor.

These traits don’t add up to great leadership in themselves, but we believe their importance is routinely underestimated in identifying prospective leaders in universities. As a consequence, potentially excellent leaders – especially those who bring welcome diversity to the candidate pool – may be overlooked or count themselves out.

Another issue to consider for aspiring leaders, or those recruiting them, is the changed communication environment within and outside universities. Social media has facilitated direct personal attacks on some high-profile leaders, particularly around periods of industrial action, but also in the context of media stories about particular universities or as a response to a controversial decision inside an institution.

Though generally speaking those responsible for such attacks are in the minority, we should collectively be concerned about the personal impact for individual leaders and their families of bullying tactics, and the effect that such attacks have on the willingness and ability of institutional heads to speak publicly on issues of importance to higher education. (Good) leaders expect, even welcome, challenge, but as one vice chancellor said to us, “I do like it to be evidence-based.”

Leadership cultures

Our report is focused on heads of institution, and we believe will be valuable to aspiring leaders, those considering a move of role or institution, and those responsible for recruiting institutional leaders.

We also hope it will be of interest to anyone who is concerned about higher education, the quality of its leadership, and the development of its culture. Because though heads of institution set the compass points, a culture is built by leadership throughout an institution. Where humanity is acknowledged and celebrated, at every level, the community as a whole develops resilience to shocks and shifts in external conditions.

As the sector prepares for a further round of industrial action, the results of a general election and the final outcome of the Brexit process, we’re going to need to keep a close grip on our essential humanity – and acknowledge the humanity of our leaders, even when we think they’re wrong.

This article is published in association with Minerva. You can view and download a copy of the I, vice chancellor report here

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