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A significant new body of research commissioned and published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education will help universities develop current and future leaders and address key issues facing staff, a conference heard.
The LFHE has published four reports based on surveys of nearly 1,000 staff in higher education institutions plus a unique poll of governors, to explore questions ranging from major challenges facing university leaders and governors to concerns over diversity among staff and problems with tackling stress and achieving a good work/life balance.
At a symposium in London to launch the research, Professor Fiona Ross, the LFHE’s director of research, said the studies had produced “a fantastic archive of data” that could be mined by other researchers. “People are universities’ only asset and we need to use the data to find ways to provide the conditions in which people thrive and can be effective leaders to support the next generation,” she said.
The Higher Education Leadership and Management Survey (HELMs), conducted in collaboration with Ashridge Business School and the University of the West of England, was conducted in April 2014. The findings have been organised into four reports on Leading Higher Education, Leadership and Work/Life Balance, Motivating and Developing Leaders, and Governors Views of their Institutions and Leadership.
Exploring the attributes of good leadership at the symposium, Jacky Lumby, professor of education at the University of Southampton, said academics were comfortable with terms such as ‘influence’ and ‘negotiate’ but found talking about ‘power’ quite difficult. “People are anxious about becoming leaders because they think it involves moral corruption or ‘ethical fading’ and it will change them,” she said.
Academic leaders often use power in a more covert way through ‘micro-politics’, the use of soft skills and manipulation, she added.
“Micro-politics is a range of influencing behaviour using social skills and interpersonal assets to achieve change through daily and often informal activity. What we communicate and when, giving information to some people and not others, what we reveal or conceal to those in corridor conversations, this is arguably so habitual in everyday leadership that we stop noticing,” she said. The use of micro-political techniques of taking an organisation in the way you want it to go can be “good or bad”. The important thing was for leaders to recognise what they were doing and decide whether it was a legitimate use of their power.
Jenny Higham, the Principal of St George’s, University of London, told how in the early days of leadership she felt she was ill-equipped and “climbing without crampons”. At one point she had found herself mimicking the bullying behaviour of a senior colleague.
“As I approached a group of junior doctors in the corridor I was horrified to see their body language. I thought, ‘this is awful, I never wanted to be like that’. Of course, we have a power relationship but I don’t want people to be intimidated by me,” she said.
Friendliness, calmness and common sense are important attributes in a leader, she said. “For goodness sake, though, make a decision and make it clear. If you don’t make a decision then everyone is waiting in a vacuum and the organisation can’t move on.”
Improving leadership means choosing people for their leadership qualities, said Professor Ross. “We all know people who have got to where they are because they were terrific research leaders but they don’t necessarily have the skills for supporting and leading people,” she said.
The HELMs research found that more than half of respondents thought they would need to leave their current institution to progress their career because they did not feel their ambitions were being supported.
“Institutions need to have a strategic leadership development system and a greater sense of succession planning,” she said.
Professor Andrew Wathey, the Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University, said research providing new knowledge should inform progress. “The ethnology and sociology of our sector is not very developed. Understanding what we are and what we do and how we do it is an area of significant potential,” he said.
Delegate Martin Meagher, head of the department of business at the Institute of Technology, Carlow, Republic of Ireland, commented: “What I take away from this symposium is the understanding that there is not enough research being done into how we work in the HE sector and that when we do the research we must find ways to disseminate it so it can be used to inform our practice.”
Some key findings from the HELMs research
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