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The evolving roles and constant challenges for a higher education leader

  • 20 October 2022
  • By James Ransom

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor James Ransom, Head of Research at the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE). This blog is the fifth in our series on leadership in partnership with NCEE.

A dig through academic archives can give us insights into how our understanding of higher education leadership has changed over time. One immediate take-away is the sharp increase in discussions of ‘entrepreneurial leadership’ over the last decade or so. A more careful reading shows that our understanding of entrepreneurial leadership has evolved. Take, for example, this definition by Cunningham and Lischeron from 1991:

Entrepreneurial leadership involves setting clear goals, creating opportunities, empowering people, preserving organisational intimacy, and developing a human resource system.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the focus for Lee et al. is on supporting staff to do things differently:

Entrepreneurial leadership encourages followers to identify and exploit entrepreneurial opportunities for value creation… and thus aims to motivate employees to contribute to creative activities… entrepreneurial leaders provide creative support, for example, by designing and adjusting achievable goals aimed to rouse follower perseverance and by working with employees to generate different perspectives.

Over time, definitions of entrepreneurial leadership have become more outward-looking, reflecting the role of universities within a broader system of decision-makers and stakeholders. More recent studies recognise a key skill of effective leaders: to identify and capture opportunities. And the importance of trust-building and social interaction has greatly increased. 

The upheaval of the past few years has sharpened the need for these skills. At NCEE we surveyed higher education leaders and looked at the traits of effective university leaders. Our data suggests exceptional time management and an ability to manage continual change and complex challenges are good places to start.We also looked at key challenges facing leaders. Our data does not stretch back as far as 1991, but it does offer interesting insights. Despite the sweeping changes of the past few years, challenges have remained remarkably consistent between 2019 and 2022. The top three challenges facing higher education leaders remain unchanged:

  1. dealing with the complexity of issues facing universities;
  2. too many demands on their time; and
  3. managing continual change and uncertainty.

Internal issues, such as leading teams, securing institutional support, and managing broad and diverse organisations rank lower, suggesting that universities were able to adapt well to rapidly shifting circumstances such as the pandemic – at least from the perspective of senior leaders.

I suspect the trio of top challenges will remain unchanged for a few more years. I also suspect definitions of higher education leadership will continue to evolve and will need to reflect how leaders are processing change and complexity. Perhaps, above all, they will need to reflect the need for greater collaboration in times of greater turbulence. As Gosselin and Tindemans observe in their 2016 book, Thinking Futures, institutions struggle to adapt to turbulent environments by themselves. Clever tactics, new strategies, or strong internally focused leadership are not enough. Stability requires working with other organisations who are different, but whose fates are intertwined.

As such, the definition of entrepreneurial leadership means leading beyond and outside a single sector. Fortunately, many universities have a long history of work with communities, local government, businesses, the NHS, and others, and are well-equipped for an uncertain future.

The series so far:

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