Research shows that higher education is facing more challenges than ever before, so it needs leaders who have the ability to think and act outwardly and to be able to motivate staff, as well as to make sense of the complex and changing environment of universities today (Rowley & Sherman, 2003; Bryman, 2007). Sathey (2004) argues that academic leaders often struggle to identify the qualities necessary to become more effective in their roles. Bryman (2007) advocates that leadership has generally been considered by various academicians as the top most crucial topic in higher education and its importance stems out from the fact that higher education success hinges on the quality of good leaders. On a more practical level, Smith & Hughey (2006) confirm that students can also be influenced by what academics do and say in the classroom and in advising sessions. Studies demonstrate that the increased complex nature of leadership in higher education has gained the attention as a subject over the past two decades (Ramsden, 1998; Smith & Hugh, 2006; Amey, 2006; Adair, 2011). Leadership Foundation (2012) substantiates this claim suggesting that the list of challenges remains to grow longer as universities core business increases in complexity.
Avolio et al (2009) highlights that effective leaders are developed through a never-ending process of self-study, education, training, and the accumulation of relevant experience. Although there are different views about what constitutes good leadership, Avolio (2007) proposes that leadership styles are unique and what works for one may not work for the other. In order to answer the leadership puzzle and to gain a better understanding about the meaning of effective leadership in higher education, this study has employed a phenomenological approach where a list of themes has emerged that form part of this jigsaw puzzle, resulting in a picture of effective leadership in education.
3. Literature Review
While there has been a proliferation of research carried out on the topic of leadership, the question still remains: What does it take to be an effective leader in higher education? Many writers on this subject claim that higher education settings have changed greatly in the last two decades, and that the definition of leadership still remains as elusive and hazy to define as as it did then (Bass, 1997; Amey, 2006; Altbach, 2011). Given the increasing competitive pressures and financial challenges facing universities across the UK, Bryman (2007) highlights that most academics recognise the need for effective leadership as a key ingredient for institutional success, so it needs effective leaders who can motivate staff and to ensure that the sector remains relevant in a competitive global context.
Existing research on the subject of leadership sheds comparatively little evidence of what contributes as an effective leadership in higher education. Adair (2011) states that by having a better understanding of leadership can be the key that unlocks the door of action. Bennis (2009) concurs that these leaders hold the key role in decision making that lays down the organisation’s goals and the processes by which these goals are achieved. Therefore, having a good understanding of what formulates the meaning of leadership will help to serve as an outline to this study and to explore further questions on what effective leadership means in higher education?
3.2 Definition of Leadership
While many have a good grasp of what leadership is, putting a definition to the term has proved to be a challenging endeavor for many scholars (Ramsden, 1998; Bennis, 2009; Adair, 2011). A good starting point when discussing leadership is to describe what leadership means, which is not easy as there are many different interpretations and perceptions of leadership. Although many authors have defined the concept of leadership, there does not appear to be any clear classification on what the term actually means (Bennis, 2009; Adair, 2011; Black et al, 2011). Shapiro (2005) believes that it has been a subject of thought and debate since the time of Aristotle and Plato. Since that time, concepts of this term have surfaced. Many sources demonstrate that the nature of leadership in higher education is ambiguous and contested, and that universities require a very different kind of leadership from what was once studied in the past (Sathey, 2004, Adair, 2011; Berndston, 2017).
Northouse (2007) advises that people who take on leadership positions within higher education play a crucial role, as they have the ability to influence a group of individuals to work together to achieve a common goal. MindTools (2017) agrees in that leadership is an art to instigate and motivate followers so they can strive hard toward attainment of specific objectives. This correlates to House (2004) definition of leadership as having extra extraordinary vision and decision-making power. MindTools (2017) attaches similar meaning when he sums up leadership where effective leaders must create a compelling vision that will inspire and motivate others. Bass (1997) proposes that a vision is more than just a dream. It is an ambitious view of the future that everyone in the organisation can be in, one that can realistically be achieved, yet offers a future that is better in important ways than what now exists.
Over time, researchers have proposed many different styles of leadership, but as such, there is no particular style of leadership that can be considered universal. Meehan (2017) suggests that the main reason for this is that some organisations tend to be hierarchical, whereas others tend to be flatter. The ideas about leadership have shifted considerably in recent times with Sinclair et al (2005) claiming that different organisations have demanded for different leadership styles. Smallbusiness (2017) agrees in that leadership style may also vary from organisation to organisation. Bogler (2001) maintains that leaders have different leadership styles through which they can lead their subordinates, some are authoritarian, some might be democratic, some are achievement orientated, and many other. Jeremy et al (2012) argue that a leader does not possess any fixed style throughout his or life. Instead, he or she must have to change his or her style according to situations and contexts.
Frequently, studies talk of powers as being the most common concept that people frequently associate with leadership (Mindtools, 2017). SimonStapleton (2017) states that it is not unusual for people to view leaders as individuals who wield power over others, and as a result, power is often as synonymous with leadership. Bryman (2007) highlights that leadership is often regarded as the single most important factor in the success or failure of institutions. Knight & Trowler (2001) agrees in that academic leadership is a central component in striving towards academic excellence and that such leadership is important. Ketteridge et al (2002) point out that higher education institutions differ from many organisations because leadership is a more shared phenomenon than in most organisations. After decades of dissonance, most leadership scholars agree on one thing in that they cannot come up with a common definition for leadership (Knight & Trower, 2001; Bogler, 2001; Adair, 2011, Bryman, 2007). The concept of leadership will continue to have different meaning for different people and the bottom line is that leadership is a complex concept for which a determined definition may long be in flux (Adair, 2011).
3.3 Effective Leadership in Higher Education
Effective academic leadership teams are essential to the success of the university (Adair, 2011). Kouzes & Posner (2002) believe that today’s leaders need to know new knowledge, abilities and skills to effectively cope with organisational changes. Harris et al (2004) comment that academic leaders have more challenges than the leaders of business organisations, mainly because there are various stakeholders in academia such as students, faculty members and external orgnisations. Sathye (2004) indicates that an academic leader must look upon everyone individually and use different policies to deal with them. Saythe (2004) continues to say that academic leaders must know what their objectives are, what they want to achieve, and how they will put efforts to achieve the desired goals with and through other people. Gronn (2009) highlights that the most significant function of an institution of higher learning relies on its leadership effectiveness in creating a pleasant teaching environment for faculty and in providing students with the quality of education they deserve (p15). Gronn (2010) claims that an effective leader uses his motivational and influencing powers to make organisations adapt or adopt to various changes that may arise inside or outside the organisation.
Gronn (2008) comments that effective leadership develop both managerial and leadership behaviours and qualities. Harris & Kuhnert (2017) concur that university leaders need to have effective leadership by striking a balance between good management and good leadership. Harris et al (2004) consider that there is a misconception in higher education, in that academic leadership exists only at the top levels of such universities. Therefore, Bennett et al (2003) add that universities need competent, effective academic leaders at all levels, and that the success the of higher education institution depends on effective leaders. Shapairo (2005) states that leadership is an action, not a title, and the ability to lead can be found in every person. Wergin (2007) argues that effective academic leadership is more important than ever before and can play a key role in directing and managing changes at universities. To cope with the many challenges facing universities today, Berndtson (2017) adds that universities are now casting their nets more widely, to meet with these demands. Compelling evidence suggests that attracting the right people from outside academia can bring about fresh change in higher education (Bryman, 2007; Wergin, 2007; Berndtson, 2017). Berndtson (2017) concludes that commercially minded leaders can breathe new life into academic institutions and help to stay ahead of technology.
3.4 Leadership Styles
Rowley & Sherman (2003) note that universities are constantly facing changes and hence need to transform themselves and adapt to the changes witnessed around them. Three important leadership models that have gained popularity over the past 20 years and these are transformational, distributed and ethical leadership (Lam, 2002; Spillance & Diamond, 2007a; Shapairo, 2005; Brown, 2007). According to Bass & Avolio (1993), most leaders aspire to be transformational, as transformational leaders are said to lead through vision and may have one eye on the future, and model and communicate with a forward-thinking commitment. Bass (1998) agrees in that employees find transformational leaders as inspirational, and follow transformational leaders because they believe in the common goals that are shared and articulated amongst others.
Another leadership style associated with effective leadership style is the distributed leadership. Gronn (2006) believes that distributed leadership places the leadership practice at centre stage with a more systemic perspective. Thus, the leadership activity is stretched over the work of a number of individuals where the leadership tasks are accomplished through the interactions of multiple leaders (Spillance, 2004; Spillance, 2006; Spillance & Diamond, 2007b). Gronn (2008) argues that distributed leadership is much more about just sharing out tasks mainly because it focuses on the importance of sharing a vision or a culture, where the power lies within the relationships that can lead to transformation. Spillance & Diamond (2007a) highlights that distributed leadership has emerged as a result of large scale projects that requires a collaborative approach bringing together different people with different areas of expertise.
Ethical leadership is another important emerging topic in leadership research (Brown, 2007). For leaders to be viewed as ethical, Brown & Trevino (2005) suggest that this is about doing what is right and making good decisions when in a powerful position. Ciulla (2005) argues that it is more than just obeying the law, it is living by a personal and professional code of ethics. Brown (2007) confirms that leaders are faced with many difficult ethical dilemmas, so they need a strong ethical foundation to base their decisions on. Brown & Trevino (2005) comments that ethical leaders should be positive role models for their followers, and show them the right way to behave in certain situations. Although there are many characteristics that make an effective leader, many scholars argue that ethics stand out above all of them. With a strong ethical foundation, leaders are trusted and looked up to (Bass, 1997; Ciulla, 2005; Brown, 2007). Brown & Trevino (2005) demonstrate that under an ethical leader, employees thrive and flourish and are encouraged to improve the way things are done, and are also praised for taking the first step rather than waiting for somebody else to do it for them.
Adair (2011) concludes that it is vital for academic leaders to constantly assess the campus climate and culture to ensure that they are making the right decisions that align with the values and ethics of the university. Most authors claim that academic may need to adjust their leadership style throughout the day depending on what is going on around them or who they are dealing with (Adair, 2011; Bryman, 2007; MindTools, 2017; Academic Impression, 2017). Therefore, Wolff & Moser (2009) concludes that it is important for academic leaders to familiarise themselves with all styles of leadership and how best to use them.
Effective leadership is central to an organisation’s success. Universities are definitively not immune to this need for effective leadership as they face similar challenges as any other organisation. As the pace of change in higher education continues to accelerate, the challenges are becoming increasingly complex and that current future leaders must deal with the changing demands of multiple stakeholders, increasing regulation, stiffening competition, new technologies and ways of delivering education (Harris & Agnew, 2004; Amey, 2006; Adair, 2011; Academic Impressions, 2017). This recent finding suggests that there is no single leadership style that would be appropriate for all institutions, merely the best leaders possess a variety of leadership styles, where they have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances dictate (Chemers, 2000; Bryman, 2007; Berndston, 2017). Thus, Bogler (2001) concludes that it is useful to possess a thorough understanding of the different styles to enable a broader understanding of the behavior of leaders in higher education.
4. Research Methods
It is a tough job being an academic leader, as the role has become more challenging than it did two decades ago. Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest that academic leaders require a combination of skills. But what does it really take to be an effective leader? Studies show that the need for better academic leaders are more critical than ever (Leadership Advanced Online, 2017). Despite the urgency of this, research continues to demonstrate that we continue to fall short in developing effective leaders (Knight & Trowler, 2001; Avolio et al, 2009; Harris & Kuhnert, 2017). In order to solve the leadership puzzle, this report has attempted to construct the definition of academic leadership from the perspective of academic leaders working in universities. Therefore, answers the main research question: How do academics describe their positive leadership experiences in higher education? Thus, a phenomenological approach was conducted with 24 academic leaders from two main universities. Respondents were asked in general about their own personal experiences of academic leadership which, in turn, leads to their own interpretation of academic leadership. Moustakas (1994) concludes that most qualitative studies are rooted in the ideology of phenomenology, believing that lived experiences are to be understood through study without any ideas or notion of the outcome.
5. Findings & Analysis
There are numerous articles, books, and opinions about leadership and what it takes to become and be a leader in higher education. Center for Creative Leadership (2017) suggests that academic leaders need a full range of skills in order to confront the complex challenges of today’s Universities. As a consequence, this has driven many researchers to re-examine what academic leadership means in today’s world and that the evolving role of a university demands a more concise definition of academic leaders (UCL, 2017). Berndston (2017) argues that being a good manager alone isn’t enough and that it requires leaders to have a deep understanding of the core business of the organisation they are to lead. To answer the research question in this study, seven reoccurring themes emerged from the participants as a way to describe their experiences as leaders in higher education.
Figure 5: Academic Leaders’ Experience of Leadership within their Roles
Effective leadership in higher education has never mattered more than ever. Research has shown that we may be looking at the role of leadership through a narrow lens and that it requires a broader definition of what this means (Harris & Kuhnert, 2017). Thus, the above image serves as a powerful image to this definition as it demonstrates the completed picture of an effective leadership experienced by leaders in higher education. Effective communication and trust are at the centre of this jigsaw puzzle, and it is this piece that ties all the other pieces together. Personal Growth, Support, Reflection, Effectively Managing Workload, Passion, Persistence are the necessary pieces that frame this jigsaw. However, this study has shown that the only solution to the Leadership Puzzle is for academics to find their own solution and then to put it to work.
Visually speaking, when you approach the jigsaw, the centre piece is the first thing that you see first. As you start to move closer, you see more of the completed puzzle that helps to guide the study to understand what is important when it comes to effective leadership. To understand the secrets of the jigsaw, the author examines each piece individually and is explained below:
(1) Continual Growth was articulated as the most predominant factor of their leadership journey. In this way, leadership was viewed by many of the participants as a journey of continuous improvement through learning, self-discipline and perseverance that undoubtedly will lead them to become more effective in their roles. One participant reported that: “I have been in the process of evolving and changing and improving for many, many years”. Another participant also offered similar views by saying that “What I am working on right now is just giving me more clarity about my intentions”. LeadershipNow (2017) agrees in that challenging, real-life experiences are rich sources of growth and learning and is seen as a way to grow as leaders and generates energy that is often eagerly embraced.
(2) Support was seen as the second most common theme amongst the participants where they spoke of leadership and followership as being a supportive bond: Leaders depend on followers and vice versa. Northouse (2007) claims that receiving a supportive bond can help to establish and maintain effective interpersonal relationships. In turn, can help to create an environment that supports them by allowing them to take risks, to tell the truth, and to speak up (Lam et al, 2003). The participants state that by having a supportive environment, helped to facilitate their progress towards attaining the organisation’s goals. One participant agreed that there was a good supportive network at work, but it was only when she became sick from work for a few weeks that she realised just how amazing that support truly was. This participant stated that she became a better leader because of this support, and recovered a lot quicker. Another participant also found a deep sense of support within his department, where he talked about how his colleagues, and his team of soldiers were significant sources of support not only to him but to one another. Kamehamea Schools (2017) concludes that people with a rich, supportive network are better informed, more creative, more efficient, and better problem-solvers than those with limited supportive networks.
(3) Another vital element of effective leadership for the participants is making time for reflection, which was identified as the third theme of effective leadership. Studies show that the world’s most respected leaders and teachers, from Confucius to Aristotle, credit self-reflection as a major part of their leadership success (Martin, 2017). Some of the participants were just beginning to see the benefits of reflective practice in their roles, with one participant commenting that reflection was a way to relieve stress, and to see things from a different perspective. Others noted the importance of reflection and how it continues to help them in their roles during difficult times and has helped them to be better leaders. Another participant who has recently been introduced to reflective practices feels that it has allowed them to take time to think about their role and to share it with others. This participant feels that reflection has attributed to her emotional change in her career and personal life. Research has named reflection as one of the key competencies needed for effective leaders, particularly as the workplaces in universities grows more complex and multicultural (Doh, 2003; Cunliffe, 2004).
(4) The participants in this study spoke very passionately about their roles and believe that this comes down to passion. Thus, passion is the fourth theme that has helped them to shape their roles to become more effective leaders. Some participants would often comment about leaders who make things happen and when you see people who really excel in their careers, you simply notice that they have a strong passion for what they do. Therefore, it is this passion that can make all the difference. In part, the participants acknowledged that they want to follow a passionate leader, someone who not only cares about the cause for which he or she is working, but also the other people who are involved in the effort. TEC Canada (2017) raises an interesting point to the leadership puzzle, suggesting that successful leaders always bring passion back into their conversations especially areas that are important to them. Leadership Advance Online (2017) attaches similar meanings in that passion is contagious and people naturally want to be part of the leader’s vision because of the excitement their passion generates.
(5) Persistence was found to be the fifth theme of effective leadership. As a result of being a persistent leadership most participants see failure as a temporary obstacle and that it is this persistence that keeps them moving forward in their roles, constantly looking for solutions and working towards success. Remaining persistence in their roles as academic leaders, also helped them to confront challenges and to allow them to retain their perspective on things – even when the challenges of leadership often became stressful or complicated. Studies show that persistence is the driving force behind strong leadership, and that strong leaders never give up, and that obstacles are simply things that need to be overcome or pushed aside (Connaughton & Ruben, 2003; Brungardt et al, 2006). Brungardt et al (2006) concludes that a leader with a dream is unstoppable.
(6) Effectively managing workload was ranked as the sixth theme of effective leadership. Knowing how to effectively manage their workload was an important part of what participants see as being an effective leader. Participants discussed the need to learn how to delegate tasks out to colleagues, prioritise, set realistic deadlines, avoid distractions, and say no to unreasonable requests that may help them to increase the sense of job satisfaction and that of others. Consequently, this enables the participants to produce work of a higher quality, because they are able to place more of a focus on the projects that they have been working on. ICAEW (2017) concludes that a well-organised workload is crucial to good time management and effective leadership.
(7) Communication and trust were perhaps the two most important themes, as it this can impact all the other themes identified above. Communication and trust were identified as the centre piece of the jigsaw puzzle that holds all the other pieces together – and is the most important piece that completes the puzzle. Participants saw communication as a skill that one must master when taking on a leadership role in higher education. When asked about their experiences, one participant answered without hesitation that that communication is always the number one because if you can’t manage the communication then you are unable to do other things. Another participant comment that it is not enough to speak clearly, but that they have to make sure that they are being heard and understood by all. Efficient communication can also lead to trust and it is this trust that helps to retain top talent and improve work culture (Walters, 2017). Compelling evidence suggests that a high level of trust in the workplace can create a much more fulfilling and enjoyable environment to work in (Goleman et al 2002; Doh, 2003). Therefore, Luthra & Dahiya (2017) concludes that two determining factors of effective leadership in higher education is the ability to trust and effectively communicate with others.
5.1 Discussion of the Themes and Literature
The literature demonstrates that there is a vast amount of information written on the subject of effective leaders in higher education, but the topic continues to be talked about and debated. There are many definitions of leadership that can be found in the literature, but this cannot be reduced to one specific meaning. Thus, trying to simplify it in this manner, we may lose the very essence of what we are trying to capture. It has been stated that there is not one solution to an effective leadership in higher education and this is viewed more of a journey towards becoming one. Therefore, the concept of leadership is not straightforward, as it simply doesn’t follow a set of rules or procedures. Yet, there are certain skills that can describe an effective leader and certain themes have been identified to help academic leaders to become more effective in their own roles.
This paper argues that a phenomenological approach is essential as it has helped to understand the challenges that academic leaders experienced in their current roles, and to identify the major themes of what contributes towards effective leadership from different perspectives. This draws us to a famous quote by John Keats suggesting that “nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.” This quote then raises questions about why more has not been written about the experiences of academic leaders in higher education, suggesting that academics need to pay more attention to their leadership roles in higher education (Bryman, 2007).
All the participants in this study considered that leadership skills and personal growth go hand in hand, where it was seen to be important to continuously work to improve their own leadership skills to keep their skill sets properly aligned with the constantly changing goals and priorities of today’s professional workforce. In turn, participants felt that having a supportive environment was crucial in their role as an academic leader. Furthermore, participants commented that leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel can help to build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges.
Participants often talk about how they have come into higher education, simply because of their “passion for their subject”, which in turn has helped them to become more effective as academic leaders. The participants also acknowledged the need to be self-reflective in their roles and that making time to reflect was seen as a critical component in helping them to process their own emotional experiences as leaders, which helped them to become better leaders as a result of reflection.
Many participants point out that persistence is what kept them moving forward in their roles, helping them to confront challenges, as well as allowing them to retain their perspective on things. The literature shows that no leaders can do everything themselves, so a well-organisation workload was seen to be crucial to good time management and effective leadership.
The core skills that most participants identified as being effective in their roles was that of communication and trust. This study demonstrates that communication and trust is at the centre of the jigsaw puzzle indicating that communication and building trust is more essential than ever for today’s leaders, where it effectively holds the other skills together. In fact, most participants refer to trust, communication, and leadership as a three-way approach to effective leadership.
It has been surprising to learn just how little can be drawn from the literature with regards to effective leadership approaches to higher education. The notion drawn from the research has a tendency to suggest that higher education requires a new type of leadership approach such as transformational, distribution and ethical leadership style (Lam, 2002; Spillance & Diamond, 2007a; Shapairo, 2005; Brown, 2007). The findings also suggest that leadership style is something people can learn. In fact, evidence continues to grow, suggesting that developing effective leadership behaviors is important and that leadership styles do not matter (Bracey et al, 1990; Berndaet, 2017; Academic Impressions, 2017).
Over time, the literature has shown that most leaders are not easily definable (Ramsden, 1998b; Bennis, 2009; Jeremy et al, 2012). With academic leaders been defined in many ways, it is becoming increasingly important for universities to find multi-faceted leaders to meet the diverse challenges of a changing sector (Jeremy et al, 2012). Studies therefore question whether the academics who have traditionally led universities are the right leaders of tomorrow? Hasn’t the requisite skillset broadened? The turning point in this study suggests that universities require commercially minded leaders who can make a difference in academic institutions (Berndaet, 2017). As a result, this places an increasing importance of universities to recruit leaders with extensive industry experience, where the transition from industry to academic are becoming more common.
This study has found that academic strengths are unique qualities that are not shared across the broad spectrum of leaders. Like a puzzle, leaders are complex. What makes them so successful is that they don’t fit into a standard puzzle – rather they look to form new shapes, to define fresh boundaries, and to embrace solutions not seen by others. The participants in this study have shared their own stories of their own personal experiences of leadership, which was very inspiring, but their circumstances and skills may not be the same as others.
Each leadership style discussed in this study is unique and may not work for everyone, so it is important that each individual finds a way to grow as leaders through continual growth and to find solutions to his or her own problem. What is common, however, among the participants is their relentless pursuits of possibilities, the passion in which they conduct themselves and their persistence in achieving what they believe in. By mastering the nuances of communication, the participants are able to excel in their roles and can help to create a supportive culture of trust within the university. Taking advantage of reflection is seen as an effective way to relieve stress, and to see things from a different perspective. Finally, effectively managing their own workload is crucial to good time management and effective leadership. Therefore, the themes that have been identified in this study are important pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that helps to build up a picture of what a successful leadership may look like in higher education, but it is unlikely that any single skill will be the key to successful leadership, and that is the leadership puzzle.
This knowledge will therefore serve as a guide or as pieces of the puzzle to allow others to explore further the question of effective leadership in higher education.
The pace of change continues and universities are set to become yet more complex. The literature demonstrates that leadership is one of the most widely talked about subjects and at the same time one of the most elusive and puzzling (Ramsden, 1998; Bennis, 2009; Jeremy et al, 2012). The art of leadership never stops puzzling academics who take on this role. Studies continue to show that leadership styles of individual leaders have varied substantially in the past. While each of the leadership puzzles look and sound different in every organisation due to various people, cultures and circumstances. One thing is constant is that academics often aspire to be the best leader they can be.
The leadership experiences of each of the participants in this study cannot be simply categorised into leaderships styles since their experiences are multidimensional and multi-layered. These experiences are influenced by many factors that may be present in the lives of the leader. Thus, leadership can only be understood from the context of a leader’s experience. Brower et al (2009) add that the concept of leadership is having a number of skills to sustain and knowing when to use the right one, with some styles helping to form what is meant as a rounded and effective leader. This study summaries that is no simple formula for achieving excellence in higher education leadership. However, one of the characteristics that make an effective leader is a person’s ability to see the future as a puzzle – that needs to be solved, but in which all the pieces can work together to create a whole. Altbach (2011) conclude that academicians differ in the definition and understanding of leadership effectiveness, which explains why the leadership literature is not well integrated.
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