‘Reliability is valued highly by colleagues, and it is a critical quality of successful academic leadership’
With an exaggerated tone of exasperation, an academic colleague once described me as “so reliable”. At the time, I interpreted this as not so much a compliment as a complaint about my supposed plodding predictability.
But fast-forward to an interview for a departmental leadership role and I depicted my reliability – the quality of consistent behaviour – as a strength of my approach. Fast-forward again to an application for a universitywide management role and reliability was bullishly foregrounded in my supporting statement.
What I gradually realised is that, rather than being scorned, reliability is valued highly by colleagues, whether lecturers or leaders, and that it is a critical quality of successful academic leadership.
A senior role gives you the opportunity – and the responsibility – to more fully appreciate the breadth and depth of commitment to education across your institution, and beyond it. You also have the chance to influence change directly – which might have felt impossible as a lecturer. But it comes with plenty of new challenges. Your relationships with other people become more indirect, and the extent to which you can protect time for teaching and research lessens. The peer group with whom you can be candid reduces – or even disappears – as the routine decisions you make affect larger numbers of people.
Like our teaching and research, our leadership must be in the interests of others. But purity of motivation does not mean there aren’t times when, individually and collectively, you make the wrong call. A colleague of mine invites their graduating students to write letters of advice to incoming students, based on the benefits of their own hindsight. If I were to write a similar letter to someone starting out in university management, I would advise that all their decisions be informed by input from as wide an audience as the situation allows.
Change should be undertaken sensitively, with a full recognition of the tensions between institutional imperatives and people’s hopes and expectations around university life. The best approach is to strive to build a shared understanding of situations: this is something over and above merely engineering – or enforcing
– agreement about them.
A related piece of advice is to empower others wherever you can, rather than hoarding power.
The status quo is there to be challenged, and managers should respond flexibly and decisively to changing situations. But they should clarify issues as they go. And they should always act reasonably, transparently and with integrity. Above all, a university manager must be reliable.