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Effective Leadership in Higher Education

Alan Bryman, School of Management, University of Leicester
Research Series 1.4, June 2007

S1-04 - Front Cover

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Executive Summary

This report aims to summarise the key findings from a research project investigating the styles of and approaches to leadership, and leadership behaviours, which are associated with effectiveness in higher education. The project consisted of two distinct tasks, the first was a systematic search of literature relating to leadership and effectiveness in higher education studies. The second element was a series of semi-structured interviews with academics who were involved in researching leadership in higher education, or leadership more generally. The key research question directing the investigation was: ‘What styles of or approaches to leadership are associated with effective leadership in higher education?’ In addition to this publication, an extended report has also been written which includes longer sections covering the head of department and institutional level analyses, and more detail about many of the studies reviewed.


A search was conducted for articles in refereed journals for the period 1985-2005, based on data from the UK, USA, and Australia. Studies were included where they examined the links between leadership (defined as when the styles of behaviour investigated were to do with influencing the goal directed behaviour of others) and effectiveness. Articles were included only if they met suitable quality criteria, and if they were based on reporting of original research or secondary analysis of data. The literature was analysed to identify common, or at least comparable, findings between the studies. Lists of behaviours where there was some agreement across different studies about their effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) were compiled.

After the review of the literature, 24 leadership researchers were interviewed about their own experiences. They were asked to consider the forms of leader behaviour that are associated with effectiveness in higher education. The interviewees were selected so that they represented one of three main categories of leadership researcher:

  • Leadership researchers whose interest was in school leadership or in the learning and skills sector.
  • Those with a management/business school background who were mainly interested in leadership outside of education
  • Leadership researchers who had an interest in leadership in higher education.

During each interview, general questions were asked about leadership issues and then a series of questions about higher education leadership were asked which made up the bulk of the interview. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed fully. They were then coded thematically using QSR NVivo 7.


There is no obvious single way of summarising or capturing the findings covered in this report. In the literature review, the lack of consistent use of some key terms and the way in which each investigation appears to focus on some issues but not others covered by other researchers make this an area where knowledge and understanding of leadership effectiveness is not as cumulative as some might like. However, the findings from both the literature review and the interviews point to the importance of the following facets of leadership at both departmental and institutional levels:

  • Providing direction
  • Creating a structure to support the direction
  • Fostering a supportive and collaborative environment
  • Establishing trustworthiness as a leader
  • Having personal integrity
  • Having credibility to act as a role model
  • Facilitating participation in decision-making; consultation
  • Providing communication about developments
  • Representing the department/institution to advance its cause(s) and networking on its behalf
  • Respecting existing culture while seeking to instil values through a vision for the department/institution
  • Protecting staff autonomy

What seems to lie at the heart of this list is the need for leader to create an environment or context for academics and others to fulfil their potential and interest in their work. The significance of fostering a collegial climate of mutual supportiveness and the maintenance of autonomy do seem to be a particular desiderata in the academic context.

There are also clear implications about how not to lead, the following are all likely to cause damage:

  • Failing to consult;
  • Not respecting existing values;
  • Actions that undermine collegiality;
  • Not promoting the interests of those for whom the leader is responsible;
  • Being uninvolved in the life of the department/institution;
  • Undermining autonomy;
  • Allowing the department/institution to drift.

It is striking how close the core recommendations about what to do and what not to do are to Kouzes and Posner’s (2003) Leadership Challenge Model. There are also affinities with Locke’s (2003) characterisation of the key roles of a top leader, most of which seem to be relevant to heads of department in the higher education context, in spite of the fact that Locke was writing about ‘top leaders’ rather than middle managers in organisations.

However, it is important not to imply that there are no distinctive features of leadership effectiveness in higher education: For example, in the context of departmental leadership, it has been noted in this report that a very significant feature of the expectations of academic staff in particular are:

  • the maintenance of autonomy;
  • consultation over important decisions;
  • the fostering of collegiality (both democratic decision-making and mutual cooperativeness);
  • and fighting the department’s corner with senior managers and through university structures.

There are elements of these desiderata in leadership models but it is the intensity of these expectations among university employees that is distinctive. Also, the high value placed on leadership entailing a commitment to the department’s cause is very significant and not expressed even indirectly in other models. It reflects that desire of academics in particular for a congenial work context in which to get on with their work. It marks middle leadership in higher education off from middle leadership in many other contexts, in that it means that the head of department is often in a position where he or she is not engaged in executive leadership – implementing policies and directives emanating from the centre – but in defending or protecting his or her staff, quite possibly in opposition to expectations among senior echelons.


Two developments would be especially desirable for those with an interest in the practice of leadership. First, further systematic research that directly examines the connections between leader behaviour and effectiveness in the UK are necessary as most UK research only addresses this issue in an indirect way. Second, such research should be used as a springboard for developing principles of leadership effectiveness that could be employed in training leaders.

The research provides few guides for future action, not just because of the lists of factors identified above, but also because the studies examined are often short on specifics. For example, while it is clear from the literature that leaders who ignore the desirability of consulting academic and non-academic staff take great risks in terms of maintaining the support and commitment of staff, there is less guidance on precisely how the leader – regardless of level – should go about doing so.

Further, there is far too little research on the variety of leadership roles that exist in universities at departmental level (e.g. programme director, director of research), as noted previously in this report. Research on such roles and their leadership elements would provide valuable further insights into such areas as dispersed leadership and shared leadership.

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