The Society for Research into Higher Education

Follow my leader? I don’t think so.


by Paul Temple

The team that ran the MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education in London would meet each July for a year-end review and to think about what improvements we might make to the programme in the coming year. In most years, someone would suggest re-naming the programme as “the MBA in Higher Education Leadership”, or perhaps “Leadership and Management”. I always objected to the change, on the grounds that while I could say what I thought “management” was and had some ideas about how it might be taught, I had no idea what “leadership” actually was and even less of an idea about how we might teach it. Of course, everyone has examples of great leadership being enacted: my own favourite is Ernest Shackleton addressing his crew standing around on the Antarctic pack-ice in October 1915: “The ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home”. But telling us what outstanding leaders say and do isn’t the same as telling us what leadership is.

Actually, though, the real reason for my objection was the thought of having to present the case for a change of course title at Institute committee meetings at which, I foresaw with perfect clarity, those present, having no special knowledge of the subject and no responsibility for the decision’s outcome, would obey Watson’s First Law of Higher Education: that an academic’s degree of certainty on any given topic is directly proportional to its distance from their actual field of expertise.

I was reminded of all this by a review of the “managers vs leaders” debate in a recent issue of The Economist (28 October 2023). One distinction noted there from Kotter in 1977 was that management is a problem-solving discipline aiming to create predictability, whereas leadership is about change and the unknown. This is close to the aphorism which we sometimes used when asked about the distinction: management is about doing things right, whereas leadership is about doing the right things. (Shackleton was certainly leading his crew into the unknown, but he had people with him who were excellent problem-solvers.) The Economist review quotes research by Bandiera et al at the LSE that suggests that CEOs “who displayed the behaviour of leaders were associated with better company performance overall”, although some firms, the researchers concluded, would be better off with “manager” CEOs. Helpful, eh? What the review notes, though, is that the success of the leadership-oriented CEOs’ companies may depend on top-class managers sitting with them round the boardroom table. In other words, as you might have guessed, successful organisations need both good leaders and good managers in their top jobs.

Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, Helen MacNamara, his deputy, and Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, are civil servants working at the very pinnacle of British public service. It is, I think, a safe bet that their annual appraisals consistently identified their outstanding leadership qualities: if they had been seen merely as excellent managers they would be working at somewhere like DVLA in Swansea, not in the Cabinet Office or 10 Downing Street.

And yet, as the Covid inquiry has revealed in awful detail, in the worst British peacetime crisis in modern times this group of supposedly brilliant leaders were collectively unable to ensure that the centre of government operated with even an ordinary level of effectiveness. Yes, they had to deal with a catastrophically useless Prime Minister and the – how shall I put it? – difficult Dominic Cummings (I blogged about him here in February 2020), but – look, guys – sorting out problems like these are what you’re there for. Leaders, as opposed to poor old plodding managers, are there to deal with impossible situations (OK, so I do have a definition of “leadership” after all): Shackleton didn’t say to his crew, “Well, sorry, but I’ve no idea about what to do now.” This is actually more or less what Case – just to remind you, the head of the Civil Service – says: “Am not sure I can cope with today. Might just go home.” Well, you and I have probably felt the same sometimes, but we weren’t supposed to be running the country during a crisis.

Other failings of this group of supposed top leaders? A notable one was when the rest of us were wondering if it would be OK to meet a friend in the park, MacNamara was taking a karaoke machine into work to ensure the party went with a swing. And of course there was “Party-Marty” Reynolds, sending an email inviting staff to a bring-your-own-booze party at Number Ten. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbour was dying alone in hospital, his family and friends unable to say goodbye to him. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of a rethink about leadership.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

3 thoughts on “Follow my leader? I don’t think so.

  1. The OED has a useful definition of a leader being the “principal player in a music group”.

    Management and leadership are not that different, except with management you work out what to do, but with leadership you have to get people to actually do it.

    There is training for leadership, and having academics with leadership experience provide it helps. Part of professional training is to have students work in teams on a real project. They learn how to lead, and follow, as a result. Such training is provided routinely in computing, engineering, medical, and business schools.

    • Tom, thanks for your comment on my blog, but I don’t buy your management/leadership distinction, I’m afraid. I think many people in what they and their organisations think of as management roles would be surprised to learn that they only had to “work out what to do” rather than actually get it done, because that was a task for some other group of people labelled as “leaders”. That doesn’t reflect my experience in a range of organisations, educational and otherwise, I’m afraid!

      You go on to say that training in leadership is “provided routinely” in a range of organisations, but other than mentioning teamwork on projects (doesn’t the term “project management” spring to mind here?), you don’t actually say what this leadership training consists of. As I said in my blog, that was always my problem when leadership training was proposed. I think that part of the difficulty is that, as someone remarked, leadership is like a teabag – it only gets tested in hot water – and that’s hard to replicate that in a classroom.



      • Paul, I agree that it would be rare for someone to have a purely management or leadership role, but these are different skills. As a computer professional I received a lot of project management training, but little leadership training.

        The organisation which I worked in which provided the most leadership training was the Department of Defence. Military bosses were very different to work for, as they had been explicitly trained, in specialist institutions, in how to lead people. As you say, leadership has to be tested in difficult conditions, which are hard to replicate in a classroom. But it can be simulated, if enough time, effort and money is invested.

        As a civilian, I went on some military staff college training. This used scenarios. These days that can be done with tech, but then it was done with paper and talk. As an example, a class was made up of military personnel, diplomats, and a few technocrats (such as myself). Our task was to rescue citizens trapped in a country to our north. As we discussed options, messages would arrive reporting the situation for the citizens had gotten worse. As this went on I realized the challenge was not a good solution, but to maintain cohesion of the disparate group.

        This year I helped mentor students in the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit at the ANU. These students are learning to be leaders, dealing with international emergencies. The technology had advanced, so we had teams around Australian and the USA, communicating via Zoom. There was a mock news channel, run by real media people, putting out reports on a crisis. There were also mock social media channels full of disinformation. While a simulation, it felt very real, and put the students under a carefully regulated amount of pressure.

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