The Senior Strategic Leadership (SSL) programme was my first experience of Leadership Foundation professional development. Interestingly, in my own Institution at the time - the University of Dundee - senior leadership roles were dominated by those from STEM and Humanities subject areas; SSL offered a fast track way for somebody like me, coming from an Art and Design background, to gain valuable insights and experiences.
The programme was excellent at every level. The opportunity to meet professionals from other institutions and share challenges was powerful in helping me understand the leadership dilemmas in my own organisation. The key thing I learnt was the importance of understanding the passion of academic staff and why they actually come to work. Through careful direction and support, building trust and encouraging purposeful opportunism, very successful academic institutions can be developed. This is a people business and success is dependant on very good internal and external communication.
In my new role as director of Glasgow School of Art (GSA), knowledge and skills gained through participation in the SSL programme are proving invaluable. GSA is a small specialist institution and as such is agile yet also fragile. Interestingly, being small in the current HE landscape does bring many advantages: it allows focus and specialism which builds reputation. But being small does also demand total engagement from all staff and this is where the SSL lessons are proving most helpful.
As universities become larger and larger and driven by league table position, I would argue that the motivation of staff is perhaps becoming lost. As I learnt on the SSL programme, do your staff get up in the morning because they want to work in the top quartile of all institutions, or do they engage because they are passionate about their subject, discovery and teaching, or the professional service that they run? How you answer that question probably has a huge bearing on how you manage and lead your staff. This is not to say that numbers and KPIs are not important, but just remember that everybody else in the sector is tracking the same indicators and they alone won’t deliver differentiation in the HEI landscape; that will be delivered by your staff and their passions.
The most Inspiring Leader I have worked for is Sir Alan Langlands, when he was principal at University of Dundee. He remembered people names, knew what was troubling them, didn’t pretend to always have the answers but knew the questions that might help find the solutions.
Professor Tom Inns, director, Glasgow School of Art
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