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Our mantra for the future of leadership in higher education: consistency and authenticity

  • 10 September 2021
  • By Ian Dunn

In this blog Ian Dunn, Provost of Coventry University and Chair of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) and Ceri Nursaw, Chief Executive of NCEE discuss the future of leadership. NCEE will report in early autumn on leadership in higher education following a survey of university leaders across the UK. This blog follows on from a discussion Cerin Nursaw had with Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, which you can read here. Ian is on Twitter @CovPVCStudents.

From all that has happened to us over the last 18 months, there is a recurring question about whether there will be permanent change in higher education. There will undoubtedly be change in the way higher education delivers learning and teaching, and changes in the way staff do their jobs and where they do them. But a further question is will leadership have to change?  

Leaders have faced unprecedented challenges over the last 18 months. Universities have had to manage wholescale change whilst working in difficult and unpredictable circumstances. Will this ultimately change the way we lead?

To look to the future it is often helpful to look back. Is there any difference between leadership now and leadership 100 years ago? Individual leaders will have behaved in similar ways – more or less managerially, more or less compassionately. Whenever you look at leadership there will always be people who lead well and people who lead badly.

Leadership is providing an environment in which people can flourish so they can deliver for the organisation. Leadership is about setting the direction. We believe that the defining characteristics of good leadership will remain the same. These are characteristics that have not and will not change:

  • Decisiveness
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Kindness
  • Authenticity
  • Consistency and fairness.

We would characterise leadership as being kind and thoughtful as well as being decisive and considered. As we have learned good leaders need good decision-making skills and to make those decisions in a consistent and fair manner.

Our view is the characteristics of good leadership will not change. However, the perception of the characteristics, how they are enacted under future pressures and how they are balanced may well change.

In the future our leadership must be values-led. These past 12 months have been transformational in societal terms. Universities have had to respond to societal pressures over the last few months from collective movements including ‘Black Lives Matters’ and ‘She Was Just Walking Home’ through to individual issues. Today, there are so many methods of challenge, everyone can engage or indicate their disagreement. Leaders have always been challenged, but we are working in a more exposed manner with social media, rather than the mutterings on the shop floor. The future provides us with a different pressure in leadership due to the way in which everyone has access to information, the way in which we express views and how we can express views with no perceived consequence. There is a sense that there needs to be a reaction to everything. Having clear values-led leadership means you do not react to issues as they arise instead you go back to your values and you respond from that position. A university will respond to events, but by rooting a response in values enables a consistent picture rather than mere reaction to the current pressures.

Values-led leadership is essential for any successful organisation in the future. It is also important for individuals. Being confident in your personal values will help you craft how you lead. It requires good leaders to be true to themselves and their values, but it also provides, in the face of constant comment, something to hold on to. Being authentic is key – more than ever you will be found out if you are not yourself. It will project inconsistency, reducing trust and respect.

As leaders we have to be authentic, but we also have to demonstrate it. For example, we have been living in t-shirts and jogging bottoms for the last 18 months so why do we now squeeze into a shirt and tie when we meet people face-to-face. The feeling that you are required to dress or behave in a particular way is incredibly blocking to people that feel they do not come from the same (or right) background. If you can be honest about who you are as a leader, then we can achieve something more honest, open and diverse.

Ultimately it is all about consistency.

Consistency is a key element, without which a leader is incapable of getting respect, success or even developing confidence in others.

Daniel Transon

Future leadership needs consistency more than anything. Always be consistent so that it is clear that your views are aligned to set of values or principles. Inconsistency will be the biggest demonstration of weak leadership. We recognise that you can be consistently wrong, so self-evaluation and reflection are important and the willingness to admit to being wrong.

The core qualities of leadership remain over time, but the pressure under which the leader operates and the way in which express our leadership changes. Being authentic and values-led should be the new mantra for future leaders.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Interesting article but are the 5 / 6 characteristics of leadership above the most important?

    What weighting should be given to each or are they all of equal importance?

    Leadership is a function related to a purpose and when choosing or evaluating a leader we need to look at more than characteristics.

    What about direction / objectives / success / results ?

    Is it better that leaders are evidence lead rather than decisive, timely rather than thoughtful, tailored to the individual rather than kindness, effective rather than authentic, flexible rather than consistent?

    What do others think?

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