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Developing the Advance HE Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education – 'The complex pieces of a complex puzzle'

03 Aug 2022 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE and project leader for our Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education, reflects on the project so far and looks forward to the launch of the survey in September.

Almost exactly a year ago Advance HE commissioned a scoping study to inform the development of a global leadership survey for higher education (HE) and related organisations. At the centre of the study we placed a deceptively simple question, What works for leadership in higher education?  

Whilst a question with a certain timeless quality, worthy of being asked and considered on an open and ongoing basis, the pandemic experience of the last three years has brought it into sharp focus. The Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education (SDCE) project led by Advance HE in May/June 2020, still referenced by sector colleagues, identified that “extraordinary times require outstanding leadership”. Twelve-months later a successor project, Hybrid Higher: Hybrid working and leadership in higher education (July 2021), again run on the basis of collaborative enquiry with the sector, delivered a series of powerful messages regarding the need to step up the quality and consistency of leadership development at all levels within the sector, with associated investment:

  • We need to acknowledge and develop leadership skills at all levels, those with authority and position, and those carrying important agendas with courage, commitment and influence.
  • For a hybrid workforce to flourish, good leadership practices need to be pervasive within an organisation, and supported and developed accordingly.
  • Develop your managers and leaders like never before!

Outside of Higher Education the international consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, described the Covid-19 pandemic as “the toughest leadership test” (May 2020), and the Chartered Management Institute based in the UK called it “the ultimate test of management and leadership”.

The time seems ripe, therefore, to move towards a stronger, more structured, evidence-informed and useful set of insights about leading and leadership in HE based on systematically exploring this ‘what works?’ question. This is the core objective of the Advance HE Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education that will launch in September. Through commissioning the scoping study in July 2021 we embarked upon a collaborative journey of co-creation with the sector to develop and refine a survey blueprint.

It has been an extraordinary privilege to act as project leader for this initiative. That privilege has come from three directions, firstly the exceptional research team that worked together to undertake the scoping study, secondly the highly committed and diverse range of colleagues that signed-up to participate in the study, and thirdly the wonderful HE sector itself for never taking for granted either the role of leadership or the notion of being led. The scoping study consisted of four elements:

  • A literature review examining existing theory and research on leadership in HE.
  • Eleven two-hour online roundtable discussions facilitated to capture the perspectives and experiences of different HE populations, including academic, professional services and executive/management staff, as well as a range of HE-associated bodies.
  • A series of four online dissemination and engagement events working with large groups to provide insights into the initial research findings, and then capturing responses through the use of live polls and other interactive techniques (a video of one of the events is available to view here).
  • The development of a set of recommendations for the leadership survey and an outline design consisting of potential questions and question areas.

The roundtable conversations were extremely rich, open and insightful. They generated an extensive data set for the research analysis. As a non-participating observer at some of the sessions, I was struck by the way personal leadership attributes were openly considered alongside the social and ‘political’ dimensions of achieving influence. Within the systems, strategies and structures of often quite turbulent institutional environments, the importance of an authentic values-based approach to leading both self and others came through again and again. Values within context, purpose within place, and the individual within the collective – these were some of the dynamics identified for contemporary HE leadership. As regards defining leadership effectiveness, or ‘good’ leadership, far from coming up with a simple set of static leadership traits, the conversations revealed values and qualities that interact fluidly with context (internal and external) to form the complex pieces of a complex puzzle.

The findings from the scoping study will be published as a report shortly before the launch of the leadership survey at the beginning of September. A powerful piece of work in its own right, with significant observations regarding higher education leadership in terms of context, values, purpose and effective leadership qualities, the report will position the survey as the next stage of enquiry examining our fundamental ‘what works?’ question.

The survey is aimed at leaders at all levels, in a formal or informal role. For the purpose of the survey a broad definition of leader/leadership is adopted in recognition of the diversity of roles and relationships across the HE sector. As a global survey, we welcome participation from colleagues at HE institutions and related organisation around the world.

We invite you to join this important collaborative enquiry. If you would like to be sent the survey link and notified when the survey is live please register for project updates.

The Advance HE Global Leadership Survey for Higher Education will launch in September.

If you would like to be sent the survey link and notified when the survey is live please register for project updates.



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