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What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Professor Jacky Lumby
University of Southampton
Review Paper, December 2012

Our research forms part of the Leadership Foundation membership benefit. This Review Paper PDF is available for members to download by clicking the image below.

What do we know about leadership in higher education?


Executive Summary

The stimulus for this report was a question from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE); what do we know about leadership in higher education from our research? The report explores what, if anything, might be claimed about leadership in higher education. It considers key questions:

  • What is the knowledge base on which claims might be made?
  • Does the higher education context demand a distinctive approach?
  • Who are the leaders in higher education?
  • How do they operate and how effectively?
  • How important is leadership?

The method
The research commissioned by LFHE that deals centrally with leadership was identified and coded. Additionally a literature search for articles in refereed journals for the period 2006-2012, based on data from the UK, identified relevant research in the wider body of literature. Analysis provides a synthesised assessment of what we know about leadership that emerges from LFHE’s work with reference to the wider literature.

The knowledge base
The major part of the body of educational leadership research has an indistinct concept at the heart, generally employs a narrow range of methods, and reflects the perspective of a skewed group of organisation members in a limited range of roles. These issues are raised in many LFHE publications. With the exception of distributed leadership, theory is generally
drawn from corporate practice rather than from other sectors of education. Definitive knowledge is elusive but this may be intrinsic to leadership research. The insights and examples generated, though not definitive, are helpful to support praxis.

The distinctiveness of higher education
Higher education is sometimes claimed to be a distinctive context in which to lead. All of the characteristics noted as distinctive are discernible in other kinds of organisation. Higher education may not be as different as is sometimes claimed. However, the particular mix of factors and, above all, the nature of academics and academic work create a distinctive environment. The characteristic intensity of resistance to limited and limiting forms of leadership may sustain the core work of research, teaching and enterprise.

Who are the leaders?
The research shows varied perspectives on who leads higher education, depending on the criteria selected. Some believe that those in formal senior and middle leadership roles lead; others do not believe this to be the case. Resistance by determinedly autonomous
staff is argued to negate leadership. A different view perceives leadership as much more widely dispersed and emergent as well as intended. Overall, LFHE’s research distinguishes institutional management from leadership, and sees the latter as widely and fluidly dispersed, including, but not limited to, those in formal leadership roles.

Leadership to what end?
LFHE’s research and the wider literature embodies a yawning divergence in leaders’ espoused values and beliefs about who and what universities are for. Much literature treats higher education institutions (HEIs) in the same way as commercial business. Other literature reflects the foundational belief that HEIs are not businesses. What is indicated as characteristic of higher education is the complexity of the interplay between different values within each HEI and across the sector. The research discerns the choices made in daily practice only distantly. If establishing values is the core task of leadership, then understanding who is setting dominant values, and with what support, is another means of establishing who are functioning as leaders in higher education and to what end.

What do leaders do?
Given the dearth of observation of practice, the evidence is what people report that leaders do. The most common reference to what leaders do, or should do, is related to vision. While there is a frequently reported desire for vision, there is little evidence of its practical creation or impact. Summaries of actions other than vision tend to the general and positive, and are in many cases ambiguous. This may be in part a result of self-reported methods and also of generalising across varied roles in different contexts. We know little about the detail of practice.

Judging leadership effectiveness
Evidence of the impact of leadership on the extent and quality of research, learning and enterprise is rather slim. This is not only because of methodological challenges but also, at least in part, because the research spotlight is generally focused elsewhere. The current approach tends to be self-referential, most often focused on the meditating variable of staff perception and acceptance of leadership and not on the outcomes of leadership.

Characteristics of effective leadership
What works in one context will not necessarily work in another, and equally may be judged as effective and ineffective in the same context. As in the wider literature, the research generates lists of characteristics of effective leaders that are somewhat idealised and
apolitical. Oppositional narratives underpin estimates of effectiveness; a rational narrative stresses data-driven, command and control, while an alternative prizes an openended and fluid creation of space in which autonomy can flourish. Effectiveness is currently related to individuals, but might be more usefully applied to units.

The importance of leadership
Despite the widespread assertion that leadership is vital, in the absence of convincing evidence of the impact of leadership on higher education’s core activities there is only evidence of the degree to which people believe leadership to be discernible and important or otherwise. The evidence base is unsatisfactory but still suggests that leadership is often, although not always, important.

Looking forward
Evidence would be useful about the impact of leadership on teaching and learning, research and enterprise; that is, whether and to what extent outcomes are influenced by leadership. It may be helpful to fill in some of the gaps about how leaders operate, particularly in micropolitics, through observation and ethnographic material.

A good deal has been achieved in depicting the richness of players and their approaches to leadership. LFHE’s commissioned research avoids reductive oversimplification and provides certainty that there is no certainty about how to act, no rules about what works. Its research on leadership provides stimulation and material for praxis rather than definitive models. What it offers is a contribution to understanding the ecology of the leadership of higher education, so that actions and interventions may be located within a better knowledge base.

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