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Developing and supporting Academic Leadership

19 Apr 2023 | Dr Geraldine Harrison As we launch new work exploring strategic approaches to identifying, developing and supporting academic leaders, Advance HE Associate, Dr Geraldine Harrison, explores some of the issues and invites member participation in the project.

This project intends to better understand the challenges and barriers to developing and supporting academic leadership and to identify innovative or good practice examples with an evidence-based review of current practice. It is intended to create a dialogue between current and future academic leaders and their professional HR/OD colleagues and will also support institutions in understanding the need to take a strategic approach to identifying, developing and supporting academic leaders. Dr Geraldine Harrison explores the issue in this blog.

“Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.” Joanne Ciulla (Author & Educator)

Being a leader is much more than having a leadership title, suggests Joanne Ciulla. Leadership is interactive and involves multilayered connectivity among tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people on both a rational, emotional and a deeply moral level. It requires the development of a shared vision of what good is and a commitment to some commonly held principles that underpin the realisation of that vision. 

Without successful leadership, organisations themselves struggle to thrive. Arguably, one of the biggest differentiating factors in organisational and team success is the quality of leadership itself and it comes at a premium. Across all sectors, leadership “remains the No. 1 talent issue facing organizations around the world” (Schwartz et al., 2014).

The future of leadership in higher education is particularly relevant at this time where we find ourselves at a crossroads during a time of profound challenge and change. Our institutions require great leadership to plan, organise, coordinate, motivate and inspire in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Increasingly, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are seeking to identify effective, agile and multi-skilled approaches to deliver to enable and support academic leadership.

In light of this, as HE/FE finds itself once again at the nexus of profound change, we invite your collaboration in this research which will enable us to deepen our collective understanding and expectations of academic leadership across the sector.  

Advance HE, in collaboration with Universities Human Resources (UHR), is looking to hold a cross-sector conversation about academic leadership, exploring both where we are now and where we might want to be in the future. 

In referencing academic leadership, we mean to include everyone involved in leading teaching, learning and research including any hybrid of these functions. Inevitably, many questions will arise from these parameters which we will seek to address and clarify as we progress our research.

We would like to both learn and share among our members more about the multiple approaches in the sector to identifying, developing, supporting and retaining academic leaders. We believe it would be valuable to explore some of the following questions across a variety of institutions: What do we mean by leadership? Do we have a shared frame of reference for leadership within our institution? And across our sector? How does context shape our leadership requirements? Do we make a distinction between leadership and management? If not, should we? What are the aspects of academic leadership that require our particular attention right now? What do we mean when we speak of talent? Are we endeavouring to build a talent pipeline for academic leadership? If so, how? Where do we encounter constraints and limitations to our endeavours? How might we overcome these?

The objectives of this research project will be to gather examples of steps that institutions, large or small, are taking to develop sustainable leadership among their academic cadre and to clearly articulate both the opportunities and challenges involved.

There are interesting and critical debates to be had. To what extent and in what mix is leadership ‘a person, a position, a process, a dynamic set of relationships or a fluid interplay of social influence’ (Grint et al., 2016)? Critical to our understanding will also be the need to explore the impact of wider organisational and external systems on leadership behaviours.

And what of the position of current academic leaders themselves? Those who find themselves in the hot seat of leadership responsibility may sometimes feel ill-equipped for the burdens and pressures that come with it. 

Academic staff who hold leadership positions work in environments of high stakes, high visibility and high expectations. They must balance tensions between competition and collaboration, often even within a single institution.

In their roles, they are responsible and accountable for decisions that have people, strategic and operational impact. They often play a role that is positioned in the ‘middle’ of the organisation, working to influence and negotiate with senior Faculty and Executive teams. They must also lead their own departments and teams, working with academic and professional services staff, students and internal and external communities.  All within a system of quickly changing priorities and within volatile and complex regulatory, social and political environments, both within the HE/FE sector and across wider society.

In seeking to move forward from the ‘accidental’ or ‘reluctant’ academic leader, institutions are increasingly aware of the need to invest in leadership and prepare those who may find themselves in leadership roles in the future.

It is within this context that HR and OD teams and academic leaders are increasingly reflecting on how to create more formal academic leadership opportunities that suit the context of their specific institution (regardless of type) as well as the volatile external context.

We will explore how to support and develop both leadership and leaders for the future. The activity contained within this member benefit theme will include good practice sharing, by drawing on insights from specific case studies.

We will gather data and offer insights, identifying good practice and success stories that have embedded inclusive and transparent methods to identify, develop and support successful and diverse academic leadership practice.

Our intention is to ensure that the project outputs provide opportunities for reflection and learning, relevant across our membership community.  We welcome engagement from HR and OD professionals or anyone who is responsible for the development and support of academic leaders. 

In the first instance, please complete our survey which looks at the organisational context and conditions required to identify, develop and sustain healthy and inclusive academic leadership.  It will take approximately 15 minutes (depending on the level of free text included).  The survey will close at 12 noon (British Summer Time) Thursday 18 May.

For more details about the project and how to engage in other aspects of the project, visit the project page.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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