The research drew on the opinions of more than 350 academics in 23 UK universities

Informal leadership more influential for academics says new research

A two year investigation into leadership in Higher Education (HE) by academics in the Business School has discovered that ‘informal’ leaders are consistently rated as more influential than ‘formal’ leaders in the sector.

Drawing on the opinions of more than 350 academics in 23 UK universities, the project reveals a high degree of consistency in how ‘academic leadership’ is perceived and experienced. In particular it finds that much of what is identified as ‘academic leadership’ is not provided by people in formal managerial roles but rather by a peer group within their own academic discipline, especially those who play a pivotal role in helping their colleagues get used to academic life.

When asked to consider the degree to which others inspire, represent, mentor and influence them, academics rated ‘informal’ leaders (such as former PhD supervisors, current and former colleagues and key scholars) consistently higher than ‘formal’ leaders (such as Head of School, Director of Research or Director of Education).  This is not to negate the role of formal leaders in HE, but to clearly distinguish their role as one of ‘academic management’ rather than ‘academic leadership’.

Academics across the sector recognise leadership in actions that provide and protect an environment that enables productive academic work; support and develop a sense of shared academic values and identity and accomplish ‘boundary spanning’ on behalf of individuals and groups. Individuals may become regarded as leaders when they represent exemplary intellectual and professional standards, offer inspiration and are seen to fight for a common cause.

Fundamentally, however, participants expressed a desire for ‘self-leadership’ – to be given the professional autonomy to pursue their academic work with minimal interference from university management

Dr Richard Bolden said “Whilst the findings from this study may not be that surprising to people working in UK higher education, they carry important implications for how we recognise, reward and develop leadership in the sector. In particular they highlight the need to take a broader perspective on the ways in which direction, alignment and commitment are created and maintained and the importance of collaboration and influence across and beyond institutional boundaries.”

The report concludes with a series of recommendations for those charged with enhancing leadership capacity within higher education and promoting good governance and management within the sector.  It suggests that were university managers to appeal to the ‘human resourcefulness’ of their academics rather than treating them as ‘human resources’ then the battleground of higher education would become a less divided place.

The research was conducted on behalf of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE). A summary and full-length report is available for download from the LFHE website:

Date: 16 April 2012

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