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The disorder of academic leadership

Leadership is easy to debate but harder to define. Jane Rand of York St John University digs into the theory to suggest an unusual and provocative perspective on the role of today's academic leaders.
This article is more than 6 years old

Jane Rand is Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic) at York St John University.

Recent media focus on universities has amplified the actions and decisions of individual leaders. Addressing the specific issues this has highlighted will be important, but to really move our sector forward together we need a wider focus on the particular challenges of leadership.

But what is leadership?

A consensus definition of leadership is unlikely; as a concept, it is fundamentally difficult to understand. History, literature, and the arts, inform and critique our notions of it. In the UK, we need only look to the film release of The Darkest Hour, which saw this associated Andrew Rawnsley comment the in the Guardian:  Winston Churchill makes a fine movie star. If only we had a leader to match him in real life today

And, a straightforward internet search reveals leadership considered in, amongst others: trait theory (originating from Great Man [sic] Leadership theory in the 19th century), transformational theory, transactional theory, contingency theory, and participatory theory. Some argue that leadership, like art, democracy, and medicine, is an essentially contested concept

The notion of contestability was first developed by W B Gallie in his 1956 address to the Aristotelian society. He identified five defining conditions of essential contestability, and two further conditions that distinguish an essentially contested concept from one that is merely ‘radically confused’.

Firstly, the concept in question must signify some kind of achievement that is valued. That ‘achievement’ must be characterised by an internal complexity, must be describable in a variety of ways, and must allow considerable modification in the light of changing circumstances (but the modifications must not be predictable in advance). And, the different groups that attempt to describe the concept must recognise what relates [and separates] their description to those of other groups.

The two final conditions that explain[s] – or goes a very long way towards explaining the ways in which essentially contested concepts function, are that they derive from original exemplars that are acknowledged by all the groups, and that it must be plausible that the ongoing competition between groups enables the original concept to be sustained.

Diverse and contestant

So, what about leadership?  It is valued, even when individual leaders are not.  Leadership is also characterised by internal complexity, not least because the work of leadership is adaptive to problems that might be defined as wicked rather than tame. Leadership is variously describable. It has modified, from its origins in individuals’ use(es) of power to a contemporary recognition of the skill(s) of influence and the enablement of others; and there is reciprocal recognition between groups with different theoretical allegiances.

History depicts original exemplars of military, and religious leaders, and, over time, leadership has been argued to be a universal human behaviour – wherever groups of people come together, leaders (and followers) are typically found. Diverse and contestant; leadership has sustained.

This is helpful. Defining leadership as an essentially contested concept allows academic leadership to be recognised as a specific form, discrete from other sociological group descriptions such as political leadership.

The stewardship of disorder

So, what is unique about the enablement of others in, and with, the academy?

The academy is creative, innovative and diverse. The academy is concerned with development, and with transformation. The academy is concerned with our capacity for critical reflexivity.

Academic leadership then, stewards disorder. 

By disorder, I do not mean a state of confusion; academic leadership stewards the action(s) of disruption: the actions of creativity, of critical being, and of transformation.

Recognising the stewardship of disorder as unique, and unifying, frees up spaces for conversations about academic leadership that are long overdue; not in the sense of discussing individual leaders, as has occupied our attention in recent weeks and months, but in the sense of illuminating its breadth and depth, and the kinds of work academic leadership needs to do in the 21st century.

3 responses to “The disorder of academic leadership

  1. Terry Eagleton explained why he resigned from Oxford: he was being forced to become a manager and could see an increasing erosion of what the university had been for centuries – a place for learning, discovery, creativity and critical thinking. Unfortunately leadership and management is conflated nowadays. I don’t have an idealised concept of leadership so I was interested in the theoretical framework you provide.

  2. I’m afraid that in a culture which favours targets imposed from the top down, any debate over the nature of leadership is at best moot. Change the culture we currently have, and then perhaps we can talk about leadership in HE.

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