Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Leadership and Learning are Indispensable to Each Other

  • 13 October 2022
  • By Lesley Dobree

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Lesley Dobree, Leadership Coach and Leadership Consultant/ Advisor  with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE). The blog is the fourth in our series on leadership in partnership with NCEE.

Being a consistently good and effective leader is not easy. In recent months, there has been much media focus and debate about what makes a successful leader and, conversely, why leaders falter and become less effective in their roles. Whether you are a president, prime minister, national sports team coach or a vice chancellor, dean or director, there are always challenges to be faced. The ability to lead organisations and teams to success in times of adversity differentiates the best leaders from the rest. 

Change in higher education is rapid and omnipresent and whilst many core leadership skills remain constant, the range of skills required by senior higher education leaders today is wider than those required a decade ago. Stephanie Marshall, in her edited volume, Strategic Leadership of Change in Higher Education (2019), comments on the rapidly changing external environment and the need for university leaders to regularly reappraise how they lead. 

Marshall identifies five priority areas which require particular attention from higher education leaders:

  1. horizon scanning to identify challenges and opportunities locally, nationally and globally;
  2. making use of data and data analytics to make informed decisions, drive change and innovation;
  3. agility and creativity to adapt and respond to change;
  4. diversity and inclusivity to ensure that as wide a range of highly talented individuals are appointed and retained; and 
  5. adopting an ‘E4 leadership style’: be engaging, energised, empowering and engaged.

Increasingly, leadership needs to be grounded in experience and personal insights rather than theory, with greater emphases placed on values and mission than on strategy and long-term planning. The ability to be agile and creative in order to flex and respond to change, as well as an ‘E4 leadership style’, sits well with the ideas behind entrepreneurial leadership where leaders draw on inner strengths, learning and experience rather than theoretical constructs. The development of entrepreneurial leaders in higher education, with mindsets and behaviours such as creative thinking, the willingness and ability to innovate, lead change, make data-driven decisions and take calculated risks in order to lead skilfully has never been more important. 

The leadership author John C. Maxwell observed that the single biggest way to impact an organisation is to focus on leadership development. In times of challenge and constraint, it is easy to allow investment in leadership development to slip down the list of priorities. It is at such times that investment is most needed to ensure senior leaders develop and adapt their leadership skills and capabilities to respond to the changing environment. Senior leaders and organisational development teams need to work closely to ensure individual leaders’ learning and development is catered for. Even experienced senior leaders need time to reflect and review their skills and effectiveness. To quote former US President John F. Kennedy, ‘leadership and learning are indispensable to each other’.

There are a variety of excellent leadership development programmes, offering learning as well as useful networking opportunities, a few are designed specifically for senior leaders in the higher education sector. Some of these programmes are aimed at individuals already in senior leadership positions and some are designed for those in mid-organisational leadership but who may be also aspiring to more senior roles. Focussed programmes on topics such as change management, informatics, influencing and negotiating are also popular and very relevant. Leadership coaching interventions for individuals and teams are also growing in popularity. The opportunity to work with an experienced executive coach from outside the organisation enables a confidential coaching conversation focussed on themes identified by the leader. These may be specific leadership challenges or personal skills and capabilities the individual leader wishes to improve. Team coaching enables the team to work together to address specific challenges and areas for improvement.

To conclude, being a senior leader in higher education today is not easy, nor is it likely to get any easier. Good leaders recognise the importance of continuing learning, reflection and development. They actively promote personal growth and leadership development by openly developing themselves, recognising that leadership learning is a career-long commitment. Such leaders are also more likely to promote the growth and leadership development of their staff and teams which in turn benefits the whole organisation. 

The series so far:

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *