Five traits for higher education leadership – whatever your job title

Shân Wareing sets out the qualities that make a successful leader and how they apply in higher education

Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Northampton

We don’t turn overnight from junior members of the higher education community into its senior leaders, but leadership is important from the start of our careers, as we impact other staff and outcomes from early on.

Even without line management, we lead projects, have roles in our union branch, and contribute in a leaderly way to discussions and problem solving, stepping in as needed; situated leadership, as it’s referred to in textbooks.

Higher education needs good leaders. Universities are very complicated, and we need leaders who can hold them true to their mission, deliver their purpose of education and knowledge creation, support their students to be educated, employable citizens, sustain staff morale and navigate industrial relations, chart a course through the vagaries of government policy, the sticks and carrots of regulators, funding fluctuations, and evolutions in student and employer demand. Our leaders need to assimilate transformations in technology and artificial intelligence, respond to the agendas of environmental sustainability and equality, diversity and inclusion, develop and manage relationships with partners and sponsors, and all the while maintain the confidence of their governing body. Quite a list.

Where do these capable, inspiring leaders come from? From amongst the junior members of our community. And for all of you, who may or may not want to be a vice chancellor, you can be inspired by this list of attributes that, though they don’t fully define, do contribute to, good leadership, and which can be cultivated at any stage of a life, or career.

Passionate curiosity

At the heart of the academic endeavour, for both research and education, is passionate curiosity and it works just as well as an imperative in professional services. Wanting to understand things is the first step to being able to bring about effective change. Curiosity is the basis for respecting the expertise of others.

Michael Vaughan, the former England cricket captain attributed his team’s success in the 2005 Ashes not to telling his team how to play cricket, but being curious about them as people, and therefore understanding them as individuals.

The innovations of Thomas Cromwell, as described by Hilary Mantel, in legislation, taxation, transport, coinage, all display passionate curiosity about the world, and how it might be different. If I had to point to a time I lived up to this quality, it was asking why registry staff were re-entering student marks from printed spreadsheets, a query that eventually led to a whole university student journey transformation project underpinned by new technology.

Battle-hardened confidence

The ability to differentiate between situations where speedy intervention is required and where the best course of action is to wait till the storm blows over come from having lived through volatile situations before, and witnessed first-hand what works, what doesn’t, and what the risks and consequences are. Being able to judge the amount of effort to apply to a crisis is a source of personal resilience, and underpins the ability to weather storms. Another favourite fictional character of mine, Jack Reacher, retired U.S. military policeman and maverick defender of justice, demonstrates this when he picks a fight, indicates he’s about to count to three and then hits his opponent on the count of two. This doesn’t translate to any setting I work in but I still like it as an example!

Team smarts

Leaders are only as effective as the teams they create and maintain. Being able to bring disparate people together, to see the different value different people bring to a team, to establish a shared agenda, the ability to work with mutual respect and a will to get something done, and to hold the team together through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, is a transformative act of leadership. Nothing is as rewarding as seeing people who believe they have little in common collaborate to create something together that is out of their individual reach.

Hilary Mantel’s version of Thomas Cromwell maintains relationships with the widest possible range of people, including the Thames ferrymen who know all the gossip. One of my favourite fictions spies, George Smiley draws on a lifetime of relationships with different people, respecting their different skills and tolerant of their different needs, in his final successful trap for the Soviet spy, Karla, in Smiley’s People. Greta Gerwig brought her cast together for a sleepover before filming started to create the camaraderie and light heartedness between the onscreen characters of her hugely successful Barbie film.

A simple mindset

The ability to cut through the noise to the principles, or the cause of a problem or misunderstanding, to see through complexity to the heart of an issue, and to explain this to others in order to drive action, is a leadership gift that creates trust and inspires others, and allows people to feel safe in times of churn and uncertainty. Greta Thunberg’s leadership is a fine example of expressing risks, options and imperatives for action with clarity and brevity: “we can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.”


Sometimes leaders need to commit to action with less information than they want. Situations often arise where delay will allow more problems to develop compared to acting ahead of having all the evidence. Sometimes a leader has to take and sustain a position with a belief it will lead to a better future, even if it is exceedingly hard in the short term. And leaders have to be able to step into difficult conversations, a moment of conflict, or take public responsibility for a failure. All of these situations require courage.

We may not need day to day the extreme courage displayed, for example, by those who live their lives in conflict zones or under authoritarian governments, but the world of UK HE also requires decisions to be made with integrity and courage, even when it’s not our physical safety at stake but our psychological safety. As a leader, the requirement to take an unpopular decision for the overall good of the whole community often arises, and some people step up to these challenges rather than hoping someone else will be at the front when the difficult conversations happen.

HE is often battered in policy and the press, but it has a purpose which transcends the politics of the moment. For leadership that sustains the mission of education and research, that can lead to the solution of global problems and to better lives for our citizens, we need leadership qualities at all levels of our universities, at all stages of careers.

6 responses to “Five traits for higher education leadership – whatever your job title

  1. I would add another to this list. Diversity. One of the challenges with HE which isn’t shared with many other sectors is the homogeneity of its leadership. I’m referring to their career pathway and experience. For HE to thrive and innovate requires a broader set of skills and experience. Cross sector perspectives to challenge and provide a different worldview.

  2. Well, if we are all such good leaders, then why do we need Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro-Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Associate Deans, Heads of Department, Associate Heads of Department, etc, etc, etc, to tell us what to do? It’s time to abolish all ‘leadership’ roles, and turn universities into self-managed co-operatives run democratically, where everyone has an equal say.

  3. Battle-hardened and fearless seems to infer a particular orientation to leadership. Other approaches are also available. For example, I was surprised that compassion didn’t feature in this list. I know many regard that as non-negotiable in the current climate.

  4. I rather enjoyed the article, and the examples from cinema. I think its interesting though, how little evidence features here. This is one person’s light hearted ‘take’ on leadership, rather than a serious enquiry. This is why there is always so much debate on leadership. In a similar ‘light hearted’ vein, I wonder what mark it would get if I applied the marking guide I have to use?

  5. Fifty years later I still argue that judgment and calm under fire matter most. I’m not even sure these can be taught and even if they could I’m not sure they can be taught well. Courage is not fearlessness, courage is belief in more than a cause or a staff or an organization or a product it is what Burns calls moral leaderships that brings the most benefits to the most people. How many leaders do this and do it in education? A rare talent indeed.

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