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The Imperfect University: what do we know about HE leadership?

What do we know about leadership in higher education? Not a lot, seems to be the answer. I’ve written a bit before in the Imperfect University series about leadership in universities. There is a new report out which seeks to sum up what we know about leadership in HE. This report, written by Professor Jacky … Continued
This article is more than 11 years old

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Wonkhe Imperfect University

Not a lot, seems to be the answer.

I’ve written a bit before in the Imperfect University series about leadership in universities. There is a new report out which seeks to sum up what we know about leadership in HE.

This report, written by Professor Jacky Lumby  and published by the Leadership Foundation, must have been difficult for the LFHE to come to terms with. I think they deserve credit for publishing it as it does rather suggest that we really haven’t learned an awful lot about leadership in HE despite all the research undertaken by, among others, the Leadership Foundation. It is a fascinating and refreshingly candid read.

Wonkhe Leadership foundation review paperIt considers the big questions about leadership in HE:

  • Does the HE context demand a distinctive approach?
  • Who are the leaders in higher education?
  • How do the leaders operate and how effectively?
  • How important is leadership?

And the findings are perhaps somewhat surprising.

Is HE really that different?

So is  leadership in HE really that different from other parts of the education sector or public services or even parts of the commercial world? No. The conclusion here is that HE really might not be as different as is sometimes claimed although nature of academics and their work can create a “distinctive environment.”

Who are the leaders?

Overall, LFHE’s research distinguishes institutional management from leadership, and sees the latter as widely and fluidly dispersed, including, but not limited to, those in formal leadership roles.

There is real dispute about who are the leaders with many of those ostensibly in leadership roles not being regarded as such by those they seek to lead. Moreover, for some the “resistance by determinedly autonomous staff is argued to negate leadership.” This makes the HE institution sound like a playground gang or even worse, a political party.

Wonkhe leadership foundationLeadership to what end?

LFHE’s research and the wider literature embodies a yawning divergence in leaders’ espoused values and beliefs about who and what universities are for.

This is an outstanding conclusion. This divergence would suggest that universities could never succeed. But they do, despite all their inherent contradictions (including those of their leaders, whoever they are).

What do leaders do?

It seems that most people report that leaders do things relating to vision:

While there is a frequently reported desire for vision, there is little evidence of
its practical creation or impact. Summaries of actions other than vision tend to the general and positive, and are in many cases ambiguous. This may be in part a result of self-reported methods and also of generalising across varied roles in different contexts. We know little about the detail of practice.

I just love this. It suggests that this visioning is (as per Rozyscki) no more than ‘happy talk’ and that the research  is unable to conclude whether this is because the vision isn’t good enough or because the whole vision thing is just ritualistic and illusory.


We seem to be clutching at straws in trying to establish whether there is any evidence for leadership benefiting universities in terms of their core activities:

Evidence of the impact of leadership on the extent and quality of research, learning and enterprise is rather slim.

Moreover, university staff inevitably have contrasting views on what effectiveness means, what its characteristics are and indeed whether individuals can even be described in this way:

What works in one context will not necessarily work
in another, and equally may be judged as effective
and ineffective in the same context. As in the wider literature, the research generates lists of characteristics
of effective leaders that are somewhat idealised and apolitical. Oppositional narratives underpin estimates of effectiveness; a rational narrative stresses data-driven, command and control, while an alternative prizes an open- ended and fluid creation of space in which autonomy can flourish. Effectiveness is currently related to individuals, but might be more usefully applied to units.


Wonkhe milliganDoes it matter?

Many clearly believe that leadership matters but the research is not conclusive:

Despite the widespread assertion that leadership is vital, in the absence of convincing evidence of the impact of leadership on higher education’s core activities there is only evidence of the degree to which people believe leadership to be discernible and important or otherwise. The evidence base is unsatisfactory but still suggests that leadership is often, although not always, important.

A reassuring message for HE leaders everywhere.


As if that all weren’t enough to be worrying about the report concludes:

A good deal has been achieved in depicting the richness of players and their approaches to leadership. LFHE’s commissioned research avoids reductive over-simplification and provides certainty that there is no certainty about how to act, no rules about what works. Its research on leadership provides stimulation and material for praxis rather than definitive models. What it offers is a contribution to understanding the ecology of the leadership of higher education, so that actions and interventions may be located within a better knowledge base.

So, to offer a reductive and over-simplified summary, we don’t know much and nothing is certain but there is loads of interesting stuff to think about. A really nice report and well worth a read. All the relevant research (although I was surprised not to see Amanda Goodall’s Socrates in the Boardroom there) is contained in a handy bibliography too.

I love HE.

4 responses to “The Imperfect University: what do we know about HE leadership?

  1. Wish I’d had this when I wrote my MBA assignment looking at leadership in Universities – might have got a beter mark! My main conclusion was that Universities need to identify and fast-track what are called hybrid leaders i.e. those who have a talent for leadership but are also very capable in their specialism. They are rare in business but even more so (in my experience) in academia primarily because academics have a particualr skill set which is not often suited to leadership – that is not a critiscism by the way. That said there are a few and they do tend to get recognised – the problem is that they can’t get fast-tracked because they have to go through all the various management stages so it “looks right”. Universities are amazing places and so important but they are too risk averse in my opinion – take a risk on a few good leaders, you never know what might happen …….

  2. Such a fine review, Paul. Although I’m not sure why I like it, or what it will accomplish, or who should learn from it, or what anyone should do with it. But it’s very good, and most obviously very important. I too love HE, and even more, I love reviews about HE.

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