The challenges of being prepared for academic leadership

Paragliding © Pixabay 2021 / image: FabricioMacedoPhotos

Leadership responsibility in higher education may present itself when good academics are neither seeking office nor prepared for the role. The best researchers, grant-writers and teachers do not automatically make effective or inspirational leaders.

Furthermore, the concept of leadership is too easily conflated with the challenges and skills associated with management. Indeed, leaders do need to manage people, processes, perceptions, budgets and more, but management skills and leadership skills do not always overlap.

As in virtually every industry, leadership is hardly ever identified as an independent functional area that requires talents, traits, and temperament to be nurtured from early on in anticipation of a future role. As Professor Fiona Denney of Brunel University London writes:

“Those in academic leadership positions are interesting to study in particular because they have usually reached their leadership position as a result of being highly successful in their discipline area – particularly with regards to research – but not necessarily because they exhibit the characteristics or skills necessary for their leadership role.”

Leadership would be moot without ‘followers’. By its very nature, therefore, rising to a position of leadership in academia will require progressive engagement with a wider group of people. Considering that the path to a successful academic career can be a lonely and isolating journey labouring with your own reading and writing agenda, this imperative to stand tall among and command over people could be a rather bewildering experience.

How then can the young academic career professional avoid the future ambush of an opportunity to lead that is too good to resist?


See your future clearly

Experts in the field of academic leadership development strongly advise an early, pro-active approach towards future pathways. They recommend that young academics investigate what leadership roles exist in the institution, what they entail and how they have helped, and in future, may shape an academic career.

Join one or two committees to build an understanding of how collective work outside of research is performed. There is a ‘language’ associated with institutional processes and meeting procedures that can be mastered. Likewise, one wants to observe how effective different personalities and styles of persuasion may be in a group context.

Learn what works, but more importantly, learn what kind of behaviour turns people off or gets in the way of progress. And tremble at the thought that, one day, you may be the one tasked to coax an equally eclectic mix of intelligent, opinionated and strong-willed academics into a dynamic unit!


Develop the skills now

There are several specific managerial skills that will be required once you rise through the ranks. Search out your institution’s continued education unit and sign-up (often free or discounted for staff) for the Executive Education that is on offer for captains of industry or government departments. Or, if yours is a forward-looking institution, they may have an academic leadership development programme geared towards these needs. It does seem that whether you love it or hate it, everybody eventually needs to learn how to prepare a budget or read a financial statement. If you think you are too busy now, try to find the time once you actually need them.


Be true to your values and passions

One of the most influential books on successful institutions is ‘Built to Last,’ by Collins and Porras. Based on meticulous research of successful institutions in the private sector, and calling some companies ‘visionary,’ Collins and Porras concluded that leaders who paint a meaningful and inspirational future picture, one that may transcend each individual’s own narrow self-interest, will see the best institutional results.

The biggest temptation is to get distracted by the prestige and reputation of the institution, rather than looking at the fit between your own personal interests and passions with a particular university or department. Some of the best work in your field may be taking place at a lesser-known university with less prestige. Networks do matter though, and it is highly probable that, despite a university’s lack of recognition among the broad public and academic community, your closest family of researchers, with whom you will be engaging for years to come, hold the research of a specific department or faculty at this lesser-known university in very high esteem.

Search for the opportunity to grow in places where other people care deeply about the same things that get you going each day. Your ability to be a visionary leader will rely on how close to your true passions you are leading.



Upon their reflection on successful careers, it is striking how many leaders who have managed to create a legacy will remark on two things. Firstly, there was an element of luck that propelled their careers – with them being in the right place at the right time. Secondly, how big a role a good mentor had played in setting the right course.

You cannot underestimate the importance of mentoring and role models. Build a relationship with the senior/s whom you admire and from whom you feel you could learn. Ask them directly for advice, and do what too few humans do, follow their advice. Path-dependent decisions during your early career may open or close doors in the future, so be sure to choose wisely and in reliance on others’ wisdom and input too.

But, mentoring is not just a one-way stream. As people skills will become more important when your leadership responsibility grows, one should not underestimate how much you too have to offer someone more junior. Take on the same role for those who look up to you, and help them be successful. They may become important pillars in the structures you will lead in future and these relationships of trust will matter.


Continue building your research profile

Flawed as the idea may be that all good academics make good leaders, it is important to remain pragmatic in the realisation that most university departments select their leaders based on their core research and publishing profiles. Therefore, if you have set your sight on a future leadership role in your department, now, more than ever, it is paramount to pour the effort into growing your research and publication agenda.

Networking within the wider academic community, attending conferences, presenting and promoting your work and meeting the industry leaders who may later fall within your grant-writing ambit are building blocks that will help make you a successful academic leader once given the opportunity.


Balance work and life

Professor Fiona Denney remarks how many of the academic leaders she had interviewed commented on the importance to put appropriate boundaries in place in their lives to stop work from consuming everything. Once they stepped into a leadership position, they found that the workload increased exponentially. It takes active planning to create this balance.


Academic leadership is about people

Finally, there is no escaping it. Your institution relies on talented people to reach its objectives. Your future role as a leader will be to bring out the best in people, individually and collectively. This will manifest whether networking or managing; whether dealing with difficult people or hosting meetings or when giving feedback or simply listening.

The good news is that you can improve your people skills. It may have a lot to do with your world view. The key is often simply understanding and showing empathy for the fact that the people you are leading may be no different than what you were at an earlier career stage; somewhat new and uncertain, with insecurities fueled by a working environment where the word “critique” is central to daily practice. Sometimes, they would just want to know that their hard work is recognised and that they are respected in one way or another. The best academic leader is the magnanimous person who sees no threat in giving others this recognition. Become that leader!


© Pixabay 2021 / image: FabricioMacedoPhotos