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Developing Collective Leadership in Higher Education

Richard Bolden, Georgy Petrov and Jonathan Gosling, Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter
Research Series 1.7, February 2008

S1-07 - Front Cover

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Executive Summary

  1. This report presents the findings from an 18-month, Leadership Foundation funded, research project on collective leadership in UK Higher Education and its development. The overall aim of this project was to develop recommendations on how leadership and leadership development could be enhanced, particularly in terms of encouraging collective engagement with the leadership process. In order to do this we: (a) explored what is understood by the term ‘leadership’ by various institutional actors; (b) investigated the processes by which leadership is distributed at different levels within universities (i.e. school, faculty, executive group, etc.); and (c) examined the way(s) in which leadership development (in its broadest sense) contributes towards improved leadership capability for individuals, groups and the wider organisation.
  2. In scoping the project we drew principally on three sources: (1) general literature on the impact of management and leadership development on performance, (2) current theorising, debate and research on the nature of collective or ‘distributed’ leadership and (3) existing research on leadership and leadership development in higher education. Each source highlighted the significance of the wider context in which leadership and leadership development takes place, as opposed to focusing solely on the traits and capabilities of individual ‘leaders’. Thus integration, embeddedness and collective engagement are argued to be central to the effectiveness of leadership within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) even though they remain absent within many formal leadership development interventions (still targeted at individuals in formal roles).
  3. The key focus of this research was on the leadership of the academic work of universities (particularly teaching and research) and an exploration of how strategic direction emerges and is negotiated between varying actors within and beyond the institution.
  4. The primary method of data collection for this study was in-depth interviews with 152 leaders/managers from 12 UK HEIs. Institutions were selected to offer a broad cross section of universities on the basis of geographic location, type, size, disciplinary mix and ranking. Interviewees included senior university managers (at Vice-Chancellor/Principal Executive Group level), middle manager-academics (at faculty, school and department level), and professional managers and administrators. Interview data was supplemented by a literature review, institutional documentation and two collaborative workshops with staff development professionals in participating institutions.
  5. Findings are presented under five sections as addressed in the interviews: (1) structural/organisational approaches to leadership (‘leadership strategies and approaches’); (2) individual motivations, perceptions and experiences (‘taking up a leadership role’); (3) the social and collective aspects of leadership (‘sharing leadership’); (4) the context and changing shape of higher education (‘future trends and challenges’); and (5) the role of, and implications for, leadership development.
  6. At a structural/organisational level it was noted that all universities in our sample have undergone substantial restructuring within the last five years, including the rationalisation of organisational structures including faculties, schools and departments; committees; professional and support services and the Senior Management Group. Invariably, this has been conducted with the intent of flattening organisational hierarchies and devolving greater strategic and operational autonomy to academic faculties, schools and/or departments. These trends have been accompanied by the expansion, merging, and occasionally closure, of schools and departments to create larger ‘business units’ reporting directly to senior university management, primarily in response to market and political pressures demanding a greater commercial orientation from universities.
  7. Our findings reveal two main approaches to the devolution of managerial responsibility according to the level to which budget and line management responsibilities are allocated. Eight out of the 12 universities in our sample devolve primary responsibility to the faculty/school level, whilst the remaining four devolve this to the next level down (i.e. schools/departments). In the latter case the faculty (or equivalent) level becomes fundamentally a forum for facilitating horizontal communication and collaboration between departments/schools.
  8. Whatever the structure, we identify a number of different kinds of leadership role within the institution, including those with formal line and budget management control which have a primarily vertical influence within the institution and those with more cross-cutting roles dependent on interpersonal and social influence which serve a more horizontal function. A further major source of leadership within HEIs is people without formal management roles who, nevertheless, command considerable respect and influence through their academic and/or professional credentials within and beyond the institution.
  9. People in all of the institutions recognised the need to align and connect top-down and bottom-up leadership and management approaches as well as ensuring effective cross organisational communication and connection; however, this was recognised as a difficult balance and in each case gave rise to specific challenges and difficulties. In institutions where a predominantly ‘managerial’ or top-down approach to leadership dominates, senior university managers may be perceived, at the school/department level, to be micro-managing and interfering unnecessarily in academic affairs. By contrast, interviewees in universities with highly devolved decision-making structures frequently expressed a desire for stronger direction and greater clarity of organisational priorities to help guide their activities.
  10. In addition to the formally recognised channels for communication and influence within universities our findings highlight the importance of informal networks and relationships. This ‘social capital’ is integral to the manner in which leadership and management are enacted across the organisation and contributes strongly to a shared sense of engagement, ownership, purpose and identity. Despite its significance, however, this dimension of organisational functioning may well be neglected and can lead to dysfunction and confusion in the exercise of roles and responsibilities.
  11. With regard to the leadership of functions/services (such as HR, Estates, Finance and IT) our findings indicate a trend towards the ‘professionalisation’of these services to render them more commercially orientated and customer focused. Associated with this trend, is a tendency to decentralise services such as HR into schools and faculties and to provide professional managers to assist Deans and Heads in the day-to-day operation of their academic units. This shift is leading to a blurring of the traditional ‘academic-administrative’ divide and the evolution of a more ‘hybrid’approach.
  12. Overall, our findings point towards an increasing marketisation of UK higher education and professionalisation of leadership and management. These trends are associated with a gradual shift away from predominantly ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘collegial’ forms of organisation towards more ‘corporate’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ approaches1.
  13. At an individual level our findings reveal a range of motivations, barriers and incentives for taking on formal leadership and management roles within UK higher education. Whilst these broadly map onto Deem’s (2001) three tracks (career-route, reluctant-manager and ‘good citizen’) the situation is inevitably more complex, with individual motivations changing over time and often operating in tension with one another. Overall, however, our findings indicate an increasing tendency towards the pursuit of academic leadership as a recognised and desirable career path and a tendency for academic leaders to choose to remain in such roles after their initial term in office.
  14. Middle-level leadership and management roles such as Head of School/Department are no longer seen as purely ‘operational’ or ‘administrative’ and have evolved into something more strategic and empowering. Such posts are now usually associated with substantial managerial responsibility (in terms of finances, resources and influence) and are better supported (in terms of administrative expertise and ongoing development). Despite this, however, filling these posts has reportedly become more difficult for a number of reasons, including: the necessity of getting the right person rather than just someone willing to do the job; the need for relevant prior experience; the detrimental effect on research profile; and unfavourable organisational systems and processes (e.g. for career progression, influence at a senior level and/or performance appraisal).
  15. Recruiting to more senior levels such as PVC/DVC and Dean of Faculty/school was generally not regarded as so challenging. Whilst many leaders at this level have progressed internally within the institution there is a tendency nowadays to advertise such posts externally and hold an open recruitment competition. Senior leadership roles such as this are likely to be more appealing than that of Head of School/Department because they can be clearly constituted as career progression and may even be regarded as easier roles to perform (with the exception of VC/Principal). There is generally less conflict of interests than at the middle level, sitting clearly within the university management structure with responsibility for a wide range of disciplines (thus reducing emotional commitment to colleagues within the same subject area), and more significant financial reward. There is also less likely to be a conflict with research activities as leaders at this level are likely to have reached the pinnacle of their research career and either maintain it or divert their attention to the support/facilitation of other peoples’research.
  16. In terms of recruitment to academic management/leadership roles, whilst ‘research excellence’ (and a willingness to do the job) was traditionally the primary factor taken into consideration (particularly within ‘old’, research-intensive universities) the criteria are now being extended to take greater consideration of management and leadership experience and potential and to view ‘academic credibility’ within a broader context than just research. Thus, candidates are now likely to be considered on a range of factors, including credibility (to peers and colleagues within and beyond the institution), capability (including operational and strategic management experience), character (particularly integrity, distinctiveness, inter-personal skills and personal style) and career tactics (ambition and desire to progress, political skills, self-management and ability to proactively manage change).
  17. With regards to the social dimensions of leadership in higher education, especially the shared/distributed nature of this type of work, a number of findings were identified. Amongst all interviewees there was a sense that leadership was in some way distributed, with both strategic and operational responsibility and influence being taken at all levels. The majority of interviewees considered that distributed leadership was not just conceivable within the higher education context, but a necessity – that it is a function that is too complex and important to leave to a small group of individuals in formal roles.
  18. Despite this, however, analysis of responses revealed a number of variations in the way in which distributed leadership was being conceived. These classifications broadly match MacBeath et al’s (2004) typology of formal, pragmatic, strategic, incremental, opportunistic and cultural forms of leadership. The form adopted is influenced by a range of factors, perhaps the most significant of which is financial control, with greater power and influence afforded to schools/departments with direct control of budgets and resources. Our findings distinguish between two principal concepts of distributed leadership: firstly as formally delegated to specific individuals and groups (top-down influence) and secondly as informally dispersed across the organisation (bottom-up and horizontal influence).
  19. Benefits attributed to a distributed approach to leadership included: responsiveness, transparency, convenience and teamwork. Disadvantages may include: fragmentation, lack of role clarity, slow decision-making and variations in individual capability. Accounts of how leadership practice actually occurs within universities included descriptions of dislocation, disconnection, disengagement, dissipation, distance and dysfunctionality – together these provide a vivid image of the difficulties in balancing top-down, bottom-up and horizontal leadership within universities.
  20. Alongside distributed leadership, however, there is also a clear desire for strong and inspiring leadership from individuals in key roles. This can help give a sense of common purpose and direction, engender a sense of trust and openness, encourage communication and dialogue and create an innovative and supportive culture in which initiatives can flourish. Thus, distributed (or dispersed) leadership is not regarded as a successor to traditional hierarchical leadership but rather complements and enhances it. The evidence from our research implies that effective university leadership requires a combination of both individual and collective leadership – what Collinson and Collinson2 label “blended leadership”.
  21. In terms of the changing context of higher education, our findings indicate an increasing marketisation of the sector, driven by political and market pressures and associated with broadening of the student demographic, increasing customer focus, professionalisation of services, greater political engagement, differentiation of research orientation, internationalisation and regionalisation, interdisciplinarity and vocationalisation.
  22. Universities are responding to these challenges in a variety ways, including optimising opportunities from location, strategically reviewing disciplinary mix, creating strategic alliances with other HEIs, developing commercial alliances, and establishing additional campuses both within and outside the UK. Key development challenges include: encouraging diversity, succession planning, career routes, hybrid management, balancing competing priorities, integration with organisational systems, and management of the university brand and reputation.
  23. Despite variations between each of the sample institutions in terms of structure, approach, strategic priorities, etc. our impression was that overall, the similarities outweighed the differences. Of the differences that did appear significant, a key one was the distinction between ‘old’(pre-1992) and ‘new’(post-1992) universities. In our sample, this difference was not only associated with a difference in organisational legacy and structure but often linked to research orientation. Thus, the ‘old’ universities in our sample placed a high importance on traditional academic research and regarded it as of paramount strategic importance, whereas this was not as evident in the ‘new’universities, enabling them to focus more on the student experience and community/business engagement (including applied research). Overall, we perceived a greater acceptance of ‘managerialism’(or the need for top-down management) within ‘new’ than ‘old’ universities which still showed a preference for ‘collegiality’ (or consensual decision-making).
  24. With regards to leadership development, senior leaders within the sample universities clearly see this as an area of high priority and recognise its vital role in the longterm future and success of their organisations. This is also evidenced by the fact that the majority of institutions are either developing or have developed a clear policy framework to guide the institutional strategy and approach to leadership development.
  25. In terms of provision, there is a general trend from generic centrally-delivered programmes to bespoke/tailored leadership development for all levels. There is a tendency to view leadership development as an ongoing process of relevance to all staff and to invest more in the development of both existing leaders (at the middle and senior levels) as well as potential and future leaders (at a more junior level). Thus, whilst development was typically provided to managers after they had taken on a formal role, there is a move towards offering development prior to assuming roles and responsibilities and on an ongoing basis from then on.
  26. In addition to formal programmes there is increasing investment in more personalised support such as mentoring, coaching, development centres and job shadowing. This can be particularly useful in helping people decide whether or not to apply for and progress to formal leadership roles and can also assist in the development of skills and experience relevant to the job.
  27. Emerging priorities for development include: sustainability of finances and resources, integration with HR processes (such as the Performance and Development Review (PDR) mechanism), succession planning (especially for junior and middle-level roles), partnerships and collaborations, continuing development, programme accreditation, career progression structures and performance management.
  28. In the discussion, it is proposed that successful university leadership requires the dynamic interplay between a range of factors and priorities at a number of levels: individual, social, structural/organisational, contextual and developmental. With regards to the notion of ‘distributed leadership’ it is argued that its utility as a concept is perhaps more valuable in rhetorical than descriptive terms – thus distributed leadership offers a new language (and perspective) with which to discuss opportunities for collective engagement in institutional leadership and management even if the actual execution of such activities remains relatively unchanged.
  29. The report finishes with a series of conclusions and recommendations for higher education leaders, leadership developers and policy makers, grouped by theme (structural/organisational, individual, social, contextual and developmental) as well as further avenues for research.

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