The 5 myths of HE leadership - a #UHR23 blog from Gatenby Sanderson

25 April 2023      Martin Higgs, AUDE Communications and Campaigns Manager

Jenny Tester, Senior consultant Leadership & Talent at GatenbySanderson discusses 5 myths of Higher Education leadership, and why authentic leadership is essential for leaders to navigate the future of HE.

Myth one: Leaders always know best

In complex and volatile contexts, a reliance on authoritarian leadership where the leader's word is taken without question can lead to failures. HE is not typically an environment for such leadership, with a workforce whose default is critical challenge, and a complex and constantly moving ecosystem. A rigid leader is liable to break. Instead, those who are able to admit when the answer isn’t simple, and who aren’t afraid of being vulnerable and to draw on the expertise of their team to solve problems are more likely to be a success. Authenticity, closely followed by collaboration, was ranked as the most important leadership quality in a recent study[1] identifying qualities most valued for effective HE leadership. We need leaders who are true to their personal identity and who know how to use the strengths of their team to instil trust during times of uncertainty.

Myth two: Leadership is a fixed trait

It is a common misconception that leaders are born that way, and that individuals either have or don’t have the coveted ‘leadership’ which will mean they are effective. The reality is that leadership is contextual, and the needs of different institutions and teams require different styles and experiences in their leader. Leaders develop through allowing experiences and mistakes to be developmental, from self-reflection, horizon scanning, growth mindset and breadth of experience which make for a lifelong leadership apprenticeship. Building a pipeline of leaders, and investing time in leadership development at all levels is vital to equip HE to address future challenges.

Myth three: To be a good leader in HE you need to be the academic Proteus

It is still common in our sector for leadership positions, particularly outside of professional services, to be filled by people who have spent their entire career at a university, and who bring a breadth of skills, knowledge and experience across research, teaching, knowledge exchange and managing systems, processes and people. Consideration should be given to the balance of the role you are recruiting to, and if other types of candidates who bring different perspectives (perhaps out of sector, or with a different balance of skills) could fulfil the role. Only by challenging long-held assumptions will we be able to see changes in the diversity of leadership positions and open up HE  to the opportunity for new kinds of leaders and career paths.

Myth four: Diversity in leadership is about redressing representation at the top

While it is undoubtedly vital to hire for diversity in senior leadership positions, diversity alone cannot be successful without inclusion. It is not enough to only have a seat at the table, that seat needs to have a vote, and the person sitting in it have their voice heard. An environment where the structures and culture are in place that allows every person to be empowered to make their contribution will allow for the benefits of diversity to be felt. It is the responsibility of everyone, including those in a leadership positions, to take ownership of the diversity and inclusion agenda of the University, and to make a visible commitment to change.

Myth five: Hiring to the ‘difficult-to-fill’ vacancies is the hard part

This may seem like an unusual statement from an executive search firm and finding the right hire is certainly no easy task, but there is much more required to make that hire a success. Creating an environment where the appointee can thrive is essential for long term success. A robust onboarding process, the ongoing development of the hire and ensuring your culture is one of collaboration, openness and safety also all play a role. We can bring the candidate through the door, but it is equally important that they receive a warm welcome when they step inside.

Jenny is Senior Consultant, Leadership & Talent at GatenbySanderson, the UK's leading people intelligence business within the public and not for profit sector. With a dedicated Education team, we bring expertise finding, recruiting and developing your leadership talent.


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