It's lonely at the top

In the course of speaking with a number of VC’s I came across some ideas that gave me pause for thought and which I felt would be interesting to other leaders of HEIs.

Added by Tricia Scott, March 2011.

The order of self-belief

One VC explained that when you’re initially appointed, you believe that you are an apostle, spreading the vision of the university. After a few years, you start to believe you’re God. Within a very few years more, you know you’re God.

A VC needs to be seen to be certain, to know where he or she is leading the institution, and to believe in the vision of the institution’s future. It makes it very difficult to be open about doubts. The danger comes if you convince yourself that you have no doubts.

On leadership style and transparency

Speaking to VCs about their experiences of other leaders, prior to becoming a VC themselves, I was impressed by some clear-sighted reflection.

One spoke of a VC who sought to lead through patronage and fear. By ensuring that the members of his team were reliant on his goodwill, he ensured that he had no-one to question his decisions. And when those decisions proved to be unwise, the whole institution suffered.

Another spoke of a VC who was well-liked and avuncular in his approach, but who was not prepared to confront and resolve differences of opinion on strategy. By taking a ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ approach, pockets of activity were allowed to persist that drained resources and added nothing to the identity of the institution.

Supporting and enabling your institution’s leadership

There needs to be a way for even the most senior person in an institution to share and reflect on the issues he or she faces. Yet as the most senior person in an institution, the VC needs to be the one who gives permission and space for that frank discussion to take place. The Distinct project has piloted use of Facilitated Group Learning in the HE sector, and this may prove a useful method of learning and support for VCs. Insights from institutions across HE would be very welcome.

Topics: Leadership.