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What's happening in the wings? Leadership micropolitics in higher education

5 October 2015

Internal politicking is everywhere in higher education but it's hardly discussed, rarely admitted to and still less examined in a formal way. Now new research led by Professor Jacky Lumby shines a light on this hidden corner of leadership: the art of micropolitics.

Micropolitics is the subtle exercise of power through influence, social skills and informal activity. It's the habitual strategies that are little discussed – the choices over what to communicate and to whom, what to reveal or conceal, how structures, information and meetings are managed. It is what happens in the wings and backstage when nobody's looking.

That's changing with a research study into the subject: Exploring the Micropolitics of Leadership in Higher Education. The study draws on the views and experience of staff in academic and professional roles, ranging from vice-chancellor to head of department, registrar to faculty administrator and found that most of those interviewed regarded micropolitics as an essential part of leadership. It was seen to be especially necessary in higher education where staff expect a certain level of autonomy, meaning that overt displays of direct power from authority figures tend to be viewed as inappropriate. Micropolitics is the essential alternate way of getting things done.

According to the author of the report, Professor Jacky Lumby of the University of Southampton, which co-funded the project, "Everyone who works in higher education or any organisation is aware of politicking, but it remains largely hidden because we don't discuss it. We know from the banking sector what can happen if leaders choose to ignore questions about what is acceptable and positive in leading. It seems that higher education is ready to grasp the nettle. If it is accepted that micropolitics and power are part of the practice of leadership, it becomes possible to talk in a different way about the day-to-day choices leaders make about how they use information, communication and meetings."

Most of those interviewed for the project felt that they had not been sufficiently prepared for this aspect of leadership. As a result, the Leadership Foundation has already held three workshops to explore the topic further, in which higher education leaders demonstrated a willingness to engage with the issues, to bring this aspect of leadership to the surface and to decide what practice is legitimate and effective and what is not.

Dr Paul Gentle, director of programmes, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education said, "This research is much-anticipated by the senior leaders who take part in our development programmes. There is a tangible sense of people feeling that there is a need for this work, and for there to be more opportunity in institutional life to enable discussion of micropolitics, which is so often 'unspeakable' in universities."

In the Wings and Backstage: Exploring the Micropolitics of Leadership in Higher Education is available from this link: Micropolitics or read the summary here: Summary

About Jacky Lumby

Jacky Lumby is a Professor of Education at the University of Southampton. She has taught and led in a range of education settings and has also worked in a Training and Enterprise Council with regional responsibility for the development of leaders in both business and public sector. She has researched and published widely on education policy, leadership and management in the UK and internationally. Her work on leadership encompasses a range of areas, including comparative and international perspectives, and equality and diversity issues. She is concerned to explore how leaders can be supported to lead people and systems and processes that other successes to learners and staff in the context of living a life they value.

Recent publications by Jacky Lumby

Lumby, J. (2015) In the wings and backstage: Exploring the micropolitics of leadership in higher education, London, LFHE.

Lumby, J. (2015) Women leading South African schools in communities of multiple deprivation. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 43(3) 400-417.

Forthcoming research event

Both Professor Lumby and Professor Gentle will be taking part in the Leadership Foundation's forthcoming event - Living Leadership Research Symposium on Thursday 26 November. It will take place in central London and will be supported by the Times Higher Education. To book a place go to Living Leadership Research Symposium

For more information or to contact the author please contact Tricia Wombell, tricia.wombell@lfhe.ac.uk, Director of Marketing & Communications, Leadership Foundation 020 3648 4814 or Peter Franklin, p.franklin@soton.ac.uk Media Relations Office, University of Southampton.  023 8059 5457

 

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