Leading Edge: Achieving the ambitions of higher education strategy

Leading Edge: Achieving the ambitions of higher education strategy


What does it take to lead the university of the 2020s? In some places leadership models have not evolved much from the 1920s, in part because it is always more straightforward to adapt and patch systems rather than seek wholesale change.

Increasingly – in Nous’ experience working with universities in Australia, the UK and Canada – institutions are reflecting on what it takes to lead today’s university and how effective leadership can be a route to success in education, research and social impact.

Purposeful leadership requires strategy, structure and implementation

Universities invest a huge amount of time and energy in creating innovative strategies for the next five to 10 years. They commission research, play through scenarios and consult widely with communities inside and outside the institution. These documents are a valuable opportunity to show off the vision for the future and to communicate what the university stands for and how it will avoid threats and seize opportunities.

A good strategy is just the beginning. Universities are increasingly investing energy in the quality of implementation to deliver on the high ambitions in the strategy. They are thinking about the structures – and the roles for people who will work in those structures – to effect the change they need. It is difficult to achieve agility when formal structures constrain action, take too long to make decisions or supress innovation. Establishing functioning governance, decision-making and accountability systems is a necessary condition for success.

Building on strategy and structure, leading edge universities are using strategic implementation to engage leaders across their organisations to make the aspirations of strategy a reality. One university, for which Nous is delivering a leadership program to deans and heads of school, has determined that “the university which most effectively empowers its leaders to deliver strategy will have the greatest long-term success”. It is people who will operate within structures and deliver the strategy; university staff need useful tools, clear guidance and ongoing support if they are to lead the university.

Time for leaders to step up to the task

Universities can be complicated places with formal and informal hierarchies based on location, values, prestige, histories or personalities. These dimensions, and others, each present a nuanced challenge for delivering a strategy. This complexity, though, invites leadership development as a key tool for strategic implementation. Where there is an absence of top-down, command-and-control leadership through management action, there must be subtler ways of empowering colleagues to work towards the institution’s corporate goals.

The complexity of universities is compounded by the traditions of academic leadership, where the role of the department head, dean or vice-chancellor is more akin to that of a chair than a chief executive. Where academics might align to their academic discipline, colleagues and students before any institution, the idea of ‘leading’ the university can be alien. On the professional side of universities, which traditionally has more defined leadership responsibilities, complexity can come from the interaction with academic hierarchies and mismatches between values, priorities and ways of working.

There is also the rise of the para-academic, pracademic or third-space professional. What might have been seen as neat divides between role types is being undone by the emergence of new professions and professional identities. The growth in teaching and scholarship promotion paths has required an adjustment to conceptions of performance.

The whole landscape of what it means to work in, and succeed in, a university is changing. Given the absence of emphasis on leadership capability in the past, the challenge of developing university leaders can seem daunting: now is the time to recognise the need and to use context-sensitive leadership development responses to secure positive impact.

Universities need new leadership models to achieve their ambitions

Distributed and adaptive models of leadership reflect the complexity of universities and a common reality that influence across an institution comes more from relationships and networks than from line-management or ‘hard’ levers. These leadership concepts can empower colleagues to understand their role in the wider university and to see how they can contribute to common goals for collective success.

Embedding a leadership model does not come from simply telling people that they are all now leaders. Establishing your own leadership terms – how things can and should work within your institution – involves defining, communicating and nurturing cultural norms. Many universities have review and feedback policies, but a significant proportion know that these policies are not followed: it is easy to assert policy promoting a positive feedback culture, but it will take much more to actually achieve change.

Leadership models might be taught in classrooms but learning how to be an effective leader takes time and effort. Colleagues should have opportunities to learn models and frameworks that can help them to practise their skills and to receive robust developmental feedback that enables them to improve continually. Building cohorts of leaders can foster crucial intra-university networks as well as seed the institution with the catalysts for change. Investment in leadership capability is essential for enabling change; it is not merely nice to have.

Tackling leadership in a university need not be daunting

If you are thinking about how leadership can be improved in your university, you can start by asking a few questions:

  • What role will leaders – at all levels – play in delivering our strategy?
  • What is our current leadership culture and practice?
  • What is our vision for future leadership across the university?
  • Who are our champions already modelling the leadership qualities we are looking for?
  • How can we ensure that all our leaders are empowered to play the roles we need them to play?

Shaping a university’s leadership approach and model to one that meets the needs of strategy can be a large undertaking. Change will take time. Developing leaders, particularly if they have not perceived the value in capability development, can seem like a mammoth task. Focused use of champions, typically the ‘senior layer’ of 50-100 across academic and professional roles, can demonstrate the case for change across the whole institution. Building the capability within the university to support all leaders can secure sustained impact with limited resources. Change is possible.

We work with universities to realise strategy through tailored leadership development

When working with universities, Nous uses a leadership model tailored to the responsibilities facing university leaders. This guides our work to ensure that the application of theories, frameworks and approaches target the needs of leaders in their own context.

Our work with a wide range of universities in different regions of the world also gives us a perspective on what works – and what does not – when it comes to university leadership.

Get in touch to find out more about how our expertise can be applied to your university’s leadership challenges.

Our Leading Edge series features fresh thinking on leadership in utilities and infrastructurefinancial services, higher education and schools.

Published on 9 March 2020.