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Exploring notions of ‘good’ academic leadership in challenging times

by Alan Floyd

Due to the nature of academic work it is accepted that leaders cannot be effective without the support of their departmental colleagues. Consequently, academic leadership is seen as more of a collective responsibility. Arguably, ‘distributing’ and sharing leadership is even more important in universities than in other organisations as academics are well educated, largely autonomous, and trained to be highly critical, so are more likely to oppose and challenge traditional leadership models and behaviours and may need a subtler form of leadership than other occupational groups. This perceived shift in leadership power, moving from people in formal positions to the whole academic body, is important for universities as it has been shown that the leadership activity of academics outside formal leadership roles can be very influential in effecting organizational change. Such a power shift may also allow academics to discuss and decide on leadership issues in a more collegial manner, a practice more in line with the shared value systems of the academy. But what are academics’ expressed notions of ‘good’ leadership within this context?  This blog explores these issues by drawing on data from research that has explored more flexible ‘distributed’ and ‘collaborative’ models of leadership, crucially focusing on data from both leaders and the led (see Floyd, 2019; Floyd and Fung, 2017; Floyd and Fung, 2018).

From this work, it appears that academics construct ‘good’ leadership predominantly in terms of understanding and supporting others, empathy, the ability both to act with integrity and as a role model, and the willingness to engage in genuine dialogue.  Academics apparently want to see in their leaders all of these personal qualities and knowledge and understanding of the whole ecosystem of higher education and the ability to make tough decisions to make that successful when needed.

The data suggest that academics understand the need for strong academic leadership in the current higher education landscape and there is a lot of empathy for the complexities of leadership practice in these turbulent times. In addition, academics are clear that individuals cannot just ‘plough their own furrow’ without considering the overall needs of the department or institution overall. Thus, academic leadership was seen as being a collective act (Bolden et al, 2009). Shared understandings of good academic leadership included words like ‘respect’, ‘feeling valued’, ‘fairness’, ‘being realistic’, and being ‘open’ and ‘communicative’. In relation to distributed leadership practice then, it seems that academics are happy to work with leaders in achieving shared institutional goals as long as they perceive the decisions taken to be in the best interests of the group, that all people involved (those whose roles are teaching-focused as well as those who are research-focused) are treated fairly and with respect, and that leaders show effective communicate skills and engage in genuine dialogue with academics rather than just transmitting information.

In their personal accounts about the characteristics of ‘good’ academic leadership, some leaders stress the importance of having the right set of skills, while others emphasize a set of underpinning values. There is some difference in emphasis between those whose roles are predominantly focused on research and those whose main focus is student education, but interviewees typically construct a sense of needing to respect both research and teaching as vital strands of academic practice. Most also see academic leadership as necessarily negotiating the sometimes-differing needs of the institution itself and the individuals being led.

There were many similarities in our findings between the two groups. For example, from the leaders’ point of view, good academic leadership was characterised by holding ‘shared underpinning values’, ‘good listening and communication skills’, being ‘understanding’, ‘supportive’, and ‘even handed’, and ‘human’ in their relationships with academic staff.  There also appeared to be a shared understanding from both groups of the need and difficulty in ‘balancing’ institutional and individual needs.

One key theme that emerged from our data was the perceived need for appropriate career support from leaders in relation to academics’ chosen career paths. This finding suggests that the focus of development training and support activities for academics who take on leadership roles may need to be widened from traditional activities (for example, linked to managing conflict and finance) to include more discussions on individual staff development needs. Such a finding reflects the move towards more portfolio based careers for academics, with career development responsibility seemingly shifting from the institution to the individual (Floyd, 2012), and an accompanying shift in associated developmental needs for academic leaders (Floyd, 2016). More fundamentally, it also suggests the need for academic work, including research and education, to be seen as a scholarly whole (Fung, 2016), and for university leadership to be seen as a special form of academic endeavour directed at strengthening the synergies between these different areas – for the good of both the individuals themselves and their institutions. The tensions between what is deemed good for the individuals (both leaders and those who are led) and what is good for the institution lie at the heart of the challenge, and our data suggest that all parties appreciate explicit discussion about these tensions, so that shared solutions and indeed shared values and goals can be developed.

Acknowledgments

The research on which this blog is based was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and undertaken with Professor Dilly Fung. I gratefully acknowledge their support. Interpretations and errors remain my own.

SRHE member Alan Floyd is Professor of Education at the University of Reading where he is also the EdD Programme Director.

References

Bolden, R, Petrov, G and Gosling, J (2009) ‘Distributed leadership in higher education: rhetoric and reality’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 37(2): 257-277

Floyd, A (2012) ”Turning points’: the personal and professional circumstances that lead academics to become middle managers’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 40(2): 272-284

Floyd, A (2016) ‘Supporting academic middle managers in higher education: do we care?’ Higher Education Policy, 29(2): 167-183

Floyd, A (2019) ‘Investigating the PDR process in a UK university: continuing professional development or performativity?’ Professional Development in Education, 1-15

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2017) ‘Focusing the kaleidoscope: exploring distributed leadership in an English university’ Studies in Higher Education, 42(8): 1488-1503

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2018) ‘Stories of leading and being led: developing collaborative relationships in an English research-intensive university’ in Gornall, L, Thomas, B and Sweetman, L (eds), Exploring consensual leadership in higher education London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fung, D (2016) ‘Strength-based scholarship and good education: the scholarship circle’ Innovations in Education and Teaching International 54(2): 101-110


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Leadership in a Changing Landscape

by Jane Creaton

This introductory post is part of a series linked to a Symposium on Leadership in a Changing Landscape, which was held at the SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2019. This symposium aimed to examine different dimensions of, and perspectives on, leadership in the changing landscape of higher education. Each of the contributions, and the reflections on the discussions that followed, will be summarised here on the SRHE blog over the next four weeks.  Drawing on a range of research projects and practice initiatives, the contributors will explore the career trajectories, motivations, challenges and identities of senior leaders in both research-intensive and teaching focussed universities.

The various projects sought to understand why people aspire to or take up senior leadership roles, how they manage different aspects of the work and the different approaches that are taken to the role. Aligning with the theme of the 2019 conference, the contributions also considered the potential for critical and creative leadership within the academy. In the increasingly measured and managed higher education sector, is it possible for leaders to develop distinctive approaches to leadership and/or to challenge the ideological underpinning of managerialism?

There are a number of key themes running through this diverse set of contributions, including what constitutes good leadership, how leaders can be supported and developed, and the affective dimensions of leadership. Some of the specific questions that we discussed in the symposium, which drew together findings from the projects and our own reflections on leadership from our perspective within higher education institutions, included:

1. What might ‘creative leadership’ or ‘critical leadership’ look like in higher education?

2. How can we challenge dominant discourses of leadership based on predominantly managerially based models and explore new, more flexible, human-focused and compassionate approaches to academic leadership?

3. How might aspiring professors be better prepared for professoriate leadership challenges?

Claire Gordon and Jane Creaton: The role of heads of departments

In our blog post, we will discuss an ongoing project that explores the working practices of heads of academic departments and the institutional policies and practices required to support them. Through interviews with HoDs across the sector, we analyse the key factors impacting on how the role is experienced and enacted, including disciplinary context, institutional structure and type of university. The project is also concerned with the extent to which current leadership and management programmes provide adequate preparation and support for a role which may be particularly vulnerable to work-related stress (Floyd and Dimmock, 2011; Creaton and Heard-Laureote, 2019). The initial analysis of interviews has produced a rich mix of metaphors and analogies to describe the role that have the potential for a more creative approach to leadership development.

Alan Floyd: Exploring notions of good academic leadership in challenging times

Due to the nature of academic work, it is accepted that leaders cannot be effective without the support of their departmental colleagues (Floyd and Fung, 2017). Consequently, academic leadership is seen more as ‘the property of the collective rather than the individual’ (Bolden, Petrov, and Gosling, 2009: 259). Arguably, ‘distributing’ and sharing leadership is even more important in universities than in other organisations as academics are well educated, largely autonomous and trained to be highly critical. This means they are more likely to oppose and challenge more traditional leadership models and behaviours and may need a subtler form of leadership than other occupational groups (Bryman, 2007). In my blog post, I will draw on data from projects that have explored more flexible ‘distributed’ and ‘collaborative’ models of leadership, crucially focusing on data from both leaders and the led, to explore academics’ expressed notions of ‘good’ academic leadership in times of change and challenge.

Julie Hulme and Deborah Lock: Professors in preparation: supporting 21st century professorial leaders

Becoming a professor is not easy but for some reason becoming a professor in teaching and learning appears to be harder than most. Part of this is because there is no consensus about what a pedagogic professor looks like, and part of this is linked to uncertainty about appropriate selection criteria, and the type of evidence required to demonstrate professorial behaviours and activities (Evans, 2015). There is a lack of guidance and role (and real) models that aspiring professors (education, scholarship and/or professional practice) can turn to for advice about teaching and learning career pathways (Evans, 2017). The Professors in Preparation network is aimed at providing aspiring professors with a supportive community through which the pooling of knowledge through the sharing of ‘lived’ experiences, and identity stories aids successful applications (Waddington, 2016; Macfarlane and Burg, 2019). The network is based on the premise of a virtuous circle in which members that achieve professorship continue to contribute feedback and provide support to the next generation of professors. In our blog post, we will explore what we should expect from the 21st Century professoriate and how we could we reposition the status of educational and scholarship professors and help them become leaders of Trojan Mice instead of Cinderella followers.

Fiona Denney: What I wish I’d known” – academic leadership in the UK, lessons for the next generation

This blog post will discuss the results from a research project funded by the UK’s Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s Innovation and Transformation Fund in 2015. 18 academics in leadership positions were interviewed about their leadership experiences and what they wished they had known before taking up their leadership posts. Eight themes and information about the context within which they lead were identified and are presented with a discussion of how this contributes to our understanding of the development of those who aspire to leadership positions in higher education. Literature has focused on the importance of prestige for promotion which can leave academic leaders unprepared for the other challenges of their role (Blackmore, 2015; Kandiko-Howson and Coate, 2015). I will also identify challenges and themes which can be used to better prepare the next generation of academic leaders.

Jane Creaton is Associate Dean (Academic) for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth. She has been a member of the SRHE Governing Council since January 2019.

References

Blackmore, P (2015) Prestige in universities: in tension with the efficiency and effectiveness agenda? Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Research Conference, Newport, UK

Bolden, R, Petrov, G and Gosling, J (2009) ‘Distributed leadership in higher education: rhetoric and reality’, Educational Management Administration and Leadership https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143208100301

Bryman, A (2007) ‘Effective leadership in higher education: a literature review’, Studies in Higher Education, 32(6): 693-710, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075070701685114?journalCode=cshe20  

Creaton, J and Heard-Laureote, K (2019) ‘Rhetoric and reality in middle management: the role of heads of academic departments in UK universities’, Higher Education Policy https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-018-00128-8

Floyd, A and Fung, D (2017) ‘Focusing the kaleidoscope: exploring distributed leadership in an English university’, Studies in Higher Education https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1110692

Evans, L (2015) The purpose of professors: professionalism, pressures and performance Stimulus paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Evans, L (2017) ‘University professors as academic leaders: professorial leadership development needs and provision’, Educational Management Administration and Leadership 45(1): 123–140

Floyd, A and Dimmock, C (2011) ‘‘Jugglers’, ‘copers’ and ‘strugglers’: academics’ perceptions of being a head of department in a post-1992 UK university and how it influences their future careers’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2011.585738

Kandiko-Howson, C and Coate, K (2015) The Prestige Economy and Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation, Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Research Conference, Newport, UK

Macfarlane, B and Burg, D (2019) ‘Women professors and the academic housework trap’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 41(3): 262–274

Waddington, K (2016) ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’, International Practice Development Journal 6(1): 10