Lead­ers with the pack

The col­le­gial lead­er­ship model fits far bet­ter with the ethos of the academy than the heroic au­thor­ity fig­ure trans­planted from the brute cor­po­rate world

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

That there is more than one way for a leader to scale the mountain pass is most clearly demon­strated in sport.

It’s tempt­ing at this point to talk about Gareth South­gate, the Eng­land foot­ball man­ager who won plau­dits dur­ing the World Cup for be­ing mod­est and ra­tio­nal (this is not nor­mal) while get­ting an un­fan­cied side to the semi-fi­nals.

But foot­ball is so last month, so let’s in­stead take cy­cling, which has just com­pleted its big­gest com­pet­i­tive event of the year: the Tour de France.

The top team, Sky, is led by the dom­i­neer­ing fig­ure of Dave Brails­ford, a de­tails-ob­sessed win­ner who has over­seen six Tour vic­to­ries since 2012, at the same time as deal­ing with me­dia feuds and anti-dop­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions that would have sent a weaker char­ac­ter over the han­dle­bars.

The other, newly crowned, leader in Team Sky is the cy­clist Geraint Thomas, win­ner of this 2018 Tour at the age of 32. Thomas was not, un­til this year, the main man – much of his ca­reer has been in sup­port­ing roles, stew­ard­ing the likes of Chris Froome to the podium on the Champs-Élysées.

Af­ter his vic­tory, the for­mer Great Bri­tain cy­clist Michael Hutchin­son re­counted a story about Thomas. “On the day Froome crashed out of the tour in 2014, dozens of jour­nal­ists hung around the ho­tel all evening. Even­tu­ally the team ar­rived, and Geraint Thomas acted as team spokesman,” Hutchin­son re­called.

“Af­ter he’d ex­plained how Froome was, he took a few ques­tions. And when he fin­ished, a TV in­ter­viewer said: ‘Just for the record, who are you?’ ‘Geraint Thomas,’ he said. The in­ter­viewer said: ‘And what do you do? Are you a me­chanic or some­thing?’ He ex­plained that he was a rider, with a de­gree of pa­tience that was as­ton­ish­ing. If it had been [the sprint spe­cial­ist] Mark Cavendish, some­one would have got eaten.”

This won­der­ful anec­dote un­der­pins de­scrip­tions of Thomas as a mod­est, unas­sum­ing team player – but also plainly a leader, both on and off the road.

Writ­ing in last week’s Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, Mike Thomas, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Lan­cashire (and no re­la­tion to Geraint, as far as I am aware), ar­gued that this is a model of lead­er­ship that we need more of in academia.

It is a mis­take, he ar­gued, to im­port the “heroic lead­er­ship” model from the cor­po­rate world.

The idea that a univer­sity needs a “dom­i­neer­ing tal­is­man…to gal­vanise work­ers to gen­er­ate com­mer­cial suc­cess” fun­da­men­tally mis­un­der­stands the in­sti­tu­tion’s na­ture, he said, mak­ing the case in­stead for a “ste­ward­ship model” in which the pres­i­dent or vicechan­cel­lor is the “keeper of the flame”.

A sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment was made by Glyn Davis, one of Aus­tralia’s pre-em­i­nent vicechan­cel­lors (soon to step down from the helm of Mel­bourne Univer­sity), who re­cently ar­gued that vice-chan­cel­lors do not, in fact, have any in­di­vid­ual au­thor­ity. That, he said, makes lead­er­ship in academia a sub­tler, more re­ward­ing chal­lenge than the equiv­a­lent role in a purely com­mer­cial en­vi­ron­ment.

“In an in­sti­tu­tion where no one ac­tu­ally has to do what you tell them, you have to per­suade, hold the line, de­velop the strat­egy and carry it through. It’s a mag­nif­i­cent op­por­tu­nity to test your skills,” Davis said.

At a time when uni­ver­si­ties need lead­er­ship that can be per­sua­sive and ro­bust enough to deal with in­ter­nal strate­gic chal­lenges as well as with pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the pub­lic, we devote our cover story to six aca­demic ad­min­is­tra­tors: some who have run in­sti­tu­tions, oth­ers who have led parts of their univer­sity, some still in post, oth­ers writ­ing with the ben­e­fit of dis­tance.

All of­fer in­sights that bring the dif­fi­cul­ties, pres­sures and oc­ca­sional tri­umphs of univer­sity lead­er­ship to life. They are also a re­minder that those in charge aren’t om­ni­scient, rely heav­ily on sup­port teams, and aren’t, typ­i­cally, the ogres they are some­times made out to be.

As in cy­cling, where rid­ers form a pelo­ton and work for each other, uni­ver­si­ties are both fiercely com­pet­i­tive and deeply col­lab­o­ra­tive places. It’s a con­tra­dic­tion that makes academia what it is.

As for lead­er­ship, it’s pleas­ing that it is at least pos­si­ble for the team player to come out on top.

Those in charge aren’t om­ni­scient, rely heav­ily on sup­port teams, and aren’t, typ­i­cally, the ogres they are some­times made out to be

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