Leading higher education is tough. That much people can agree on. The Inspiring Leaders category of the Guardian University Awards, sponsored by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, is a recognition of this and a call to acknowledge and celebrate individuals who have brought out the best in others and achieved exceptional results, despite the turmoil in higher education. Alongside the award, the foundation commissioned a report on what we know about leadership in higher education, drawing on its own research and that of others.
The resulting review, What Do We Know About Leadership in Higher Education?, suggests that we may know less than we think we do, not because we’re short of research, but because we are looking at leadership through strong filters. Research generally shows us leadership at second hand, reflected in the perceptions of staff about their leaders, or leaders’ beliefs about their own practice.
What we don’t have is extended observation of what leaders actually do, and as yet, little means of linking leadership activity to impact on teaching, student outcomes and research. Even listening to the views we do have, no tidy findings emerge. Leadership – in higher education as elsewhere – eludes neat formulations.
There is even disagreement about who the sector’s leaders are. In the foundation’s research many believe that what the most senior leaders do is in fact institutional management and that leadership is unnecessary. Staff see themselves as passionately committed to their work and, though management of an enabling environment is indispensable, the motivation and direction of leadership is not.
Others believe leadership is vital and see it as widely dispersed amongst colleagues or researchers in the same field, as well as those in formally designated leadership roles. True to the untidy nature of leadership research, the foundation’s research reflects a persistent belief in, and desire for, inspirational leadership and an equally persistent deep vein of resistance to being led.
Take the creation of vision, for example. I found both a yearning for vision, alongside a good deal of scepticism and little evidence of how it works in practice. I wonder if the yearning is just a reflection of current leadership rhetoric: “That’s what leaders do: they create vision.” The evidence suggests it is more than this.