What does leadership look like in our universities?

In order for much of the activity at a university to work well, it has to be coherently joined up by an authentic, distinctive direction. Here David Cleeton-Watkins shares insights on leadership from his perspective as a business psychologist and development specialist with Roffey Park.


Contributed by David Cleeton-Watkins, August 2012.

For many of us working in universities, a leader can look strong, infallible, driven. There is much underneath that, of course, and there are some interesting themes which emerge for those privileged enough to hear what is really going on for a leader. I’d like to share some of those themes from my time working with leaders in higher education and elsewhere, for the benefit of those who work with leaders, and those who aspire to lead.

There is an issue of self-efficacy for senior people; a tension between their self-belief and their sense of not being perfect. They often have a sense of their right to lead. Yet for true self-awareness, and to realise their potential as a leader, they need to have the confidence to explore pragmatically the positives and negatives underneath that self-belief.

It is worth considering how a Vice-Chancellor might look at themselves and see where they are vulnerable. It is difficult for someone in a leadership position to find the space to consider this; yet it is important that senior teams and their Vice-Chancellor find a way to make it possible.

There is a particular theory which might help consider, in greater detail, how different Vice-Chancellors function, and the challenges they face. Karen Horney1, a distinguished psychoanalyst of the last century, suggested three ways in which a person might behave. People will be a balance of these characteristics, of course, but the framework is a useful one.

First, there are those who need to be accepted. They are described as ‘moving towards,’ and they don’t like conflict – there are a lot of these in academia. There is a challenge for this sort of leader to work out how to deal with their weaknesses.

In complete contrast, there are those who are cautious. They are described as ‘moving away’, and are cool, distant, and logical. Their deep fear is incompetence and they are cautious about decisions. This approach is rare in a Vice-Chancellor.

The third type is those who are ‘moving against’ – they can be very social, charming, charismatic, and are always driven by an agenda. They tend to be successful, and their Achilles heel is that they want to leave their mark on the world. They are risk-takers in the service of their own agenda. Some Vice-Chancellors fall into this category.

Identifying which you are, as a Vice-Chancellor – or working out which one most closely matches the Vice-Chancellor at your institution – is a good start in identifying how to support and, in some cases improve, the leadership of your university.

So far, of course, we have told only part of the story. Awareness and development activity needs to be in service of a viable sense of purpose and direction for the university in question. As many articles on the Distinct website show, in order for much of the activity at a university to work well, it has to be coherently joined up by an authentic, distinctive direction. It then becomes the VC’s role to engage people in this endeavour so that there is high quality distributed leadership across others who have a desire to provide a lead. To do this both VC and senior leaders need to develop skills in:

  1. Understanding the culture in which they work, and reflecting this understanding in their interactions with people.
  2. Making their actions representative of the values within the culture so that people can identify with and integrate the leader’s ways.
  3. Deliver things that matter to people in the university as a model of what is needed.

This process of social engagement is much more to do with applying the skills of interpersonal engagement, underpinned by a clear and singular set of aspirations that people are likely to follow, if they believe that doing so is also in their own interests at a very individual level. This is based upon their own sense of personal efficacy, an individual judgement derived as circumstances change. Thus, the leader’s role is to sustain a narrative of aspiration that is inclusive.

This is a complex relationship highly influenced by the context. For example, if the organisation is doing well then this is generally affirming for people and makes them more receptive of their leaders. Much can be achieved if leaders use this form of analysis to guide their actions.

1.  Horney, K., 1950. Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

For more on this topic, see “The New Psychology of Leadership” by Haslam, Reicher and Platow (Psychology Press).

Featured contributor

David Cleeton-Watkins is a business psychologist and development specialist with Roffey Park. David has worked with senior leaders in HE including VCs and their boards, HR Directors, senior academics, and functional heads helping them to formulate development strategies for themselves and their people.

About our guest contributors

Topics: Leadership.