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.
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