The leadership journey

An introduction to leadership


Leaders are entrusted with the vital responsibility in organisations. In my context of higher education, they are involved in shaping the minds and futures of students. Effective leadership is essential not only for the success of organisations, but also for nurturing the next generation of leaders who will tackle society's greatest challenges (Shapiro, 2015). In this article, we will explore the multifaceted nature of leadership, its importance in today's rapidly evolving landscape, and various perspectives that can guide us in becoming more impactful leaders.

The "leadership crisis"

Recent years have brought to light numerous instances of ineffective, unethical, and destructive leadership across various sectors, from corporate scandals to institutional failures (Padilla et al., 2007). The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry, for example, exposed alarming cases of poor leadership and a disregard for ethical practices (Robertson, 2018). With the scale, complexity and pace of modern organisational environments, no industry is immune from the consequences of poor leadership.

Increasing leadership demands

The 21st century has ushered in a work environment characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and the need for continuous adaptation (Criswell & Martin, 2007). Knowledge workers increasingly operate across boundaries, collaborate in virtual teams, and face intricate challenges that demand creativity, innovation, and a commitment to sustainable development (Horth & Buchner, 2009; Visser & Courtice, 2011). This context amplifies the need for effective leadership at all levels, as well as specific leadership competencies such as systems thinking, boundary-spanning, and fostering innovation (McCauley, 2014).

Leader facing demands
Leadership has never been more demanding or important

Leadership quality and organisational performance

Numerous studies have demonstrated a strong connection between the quality of leadership and team and organizational performance (Burke et al., 2006; Wang et al., 2016). Effective leadership, often labelled the "leadership effect" or "CEO effect", can be a powerful source of competitive advantage and a catalyst for organizational success (Kaiser et al., 2008). In my higher education context, exemplary leadership can translate into enhanced student outcomes, research excellence, and a positive impact on the communities we serve.

Defining leadership

The "DAC" Model: Direction, Alignment, Commitment In this article, we adopt a contemporary definition of leadership proposed by the Center for Creative Leadership. This definition views leadership as a "process of influence" that accomplishes three key outcomes: direction, alignment, and commitment (Drath et al., 2008; McCauley, 2014).

  1. Direction
    A shared understanding of common goals and strategy. This involves articulating a clear vision for the future and ensuring that everyone in the organization understands and embraces this vision.
  2. Alignment
    The coordination of resources and activities to support the shared direction. This includes aligning people, processes, and systems to ensure that everyone is working together efficiently and effectively towards the common goals.
  3. Commitment
    A personal dedication to collective success. This involves fostering a sense of ownership, motivation, and engagement among team members, so that they are willing to go above and beyond in pursuit of the shared vision.
graph TD A[DAC Leadership Model] --> B(Direction) A --> C(Alignment) A --> D(Commitment) B --> E[Shared understanding of goals and strategy] C --> F[Coordination of resources and activities] D --> G[Personal dedication to collective success] classDef title fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A title;

The DAC model emphasizes that leadership is not just about setting a direction or creating a vision, but also about ensuring that everyone in the organization is aligned and committed to achieving that vision. Effective leaders must work to create all three outcomes simultaneously, as they are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. This "DAC" model provides a practical framework for assessing and fostering effective leadership within our institutions.

Leadership as a process of influence vs formal authority

Contrary to traditional notions, leadership is not inherently tied to formal authority or hierarchical positions (Kotter, 2001). Instead, it is a process of influence that can occur at any level, with leaders emerging based on their ability to inspire others and drive collective action. This perspective empowers individuals throughout our institutions to engage in leadership, regardless of their formal roles or titles.

The difference between leadership and management

While leadership and management are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct but complementary skill sets (Kotter, 2001). Management involves functions such as planning, organizing, staffing, and controlling, with a focus on maintaining efficient operations. Leadership, by contrast, is concerned with establishing direction, aligning efforts, and generating commitment to drive change and achieve shared goals. Effective higher education leaders must possess a blend of both leadership and management competencies, adapting their approach to the demands of the situation.

"The Perils of Confusing Management and Leadership" by John Kotter (2012)

The importance of building a shared vision

A critical aspect of leadership is the ability to construct a genuinely shared vision that resonates with constituents at a deep, values level (McCauley, 2014). By engaging stakeholders, understanding their aspirations, and facilitating a collaborative process, leaders can create a compelling vision that aligns activities, fosters personal commitment, and builds resilience within the team or organization (Drath et al., 2008). In the context of higher education, a shared vision can unite faculty, staff, and students around a common purpose, enabling our institutions to navigate challenges and seize opportunities more effectively.

Leader as alignment conductor
The importance of building alignment around a shared vision

Perspectives on leadership

Major leadership theories/frameworks

Over the years, numerous theories and conceptual frameworks have been developed to understand and explain the complex phenomenon of leadership (Northouse, 2018). These perspectives offer valuable lenses through which we can examine leadership in various contexts.

Trait theories

Trait theories emphasize the importance of specific attributes, such as personality traits and intelligence, in determining leadership effectiveness (Judge et al., 2002). While research has identified several traits consistently associated with effective leadership, such as emotional stability and extraversion, the relevance of particular traits may vary depending on the context (Zaccaro, 2007).

graph TD A[Trait Theories - Judge, 2002] --> B(Intelligence) A --> C(Self-confidence) A --> D(Determination) A --> E(Integrity) A --> F(Sociability) classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Situational/Contingency theories

Situational and contingency theories highlight the importance of adapting leadership styles to fit the demands of the situation (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969; Fiedler, 1967). These approaches suggest that effective leadership requires a keen understanding of the context and the ability to adjust one's behavior accordingly.

graph LR title[Hersey & Blanchard's Situational Leadership Model] A[Leadership Style] --> B(Telling) A --> C(Selling) A --> D(Participating) A --> E(Delegating) B --> F[Low Supportive & High Directive Behavior] C --> G[High Supportive & High Directive Behavior] D --> H[High Supportive & Low Directive Behavior] E --> I[Low Supportive & Low Directive Behavior] classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Shared/Distributed leadership

Shared or distributed leadership recognizes that leadership is not solely the responsibility of a single individual but can be dispersed among team members (Pearce & Conger, 2003). This perspective is particularly relevant in academia, where expertise and influence are often distributed across faculty and staff (Jones et al., 2012).

graph TD A[Shared/Distributed Leadership - Pearce & Conger, 2003] --> B(Collective Influence) A --> C(Collaborative Decision-making) A --> D(Mutual Accountability) B --> E[Emergent Leadership] B --> F[Fluid Roles] C --> G[Consensus Building] C --> H[Participative Processes] D --> I[Shared Responsibility] D --> J[Interdependence] classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership focuses on inspiring and empowering followers to achieve higher levels of motivation and performance (Bass & Riggio, 2006). Transformational leaders articulate a compelling vision, challenge assumptions, and foster a climate of innovation and growth.

graph TD A[Transformational Leadership - Bass & Riggio, 2006] --> B(Idealized Influence) A --> C(Inspirational Motivation) A --> D(Intellectual Stimulation) A --> E(Individualized Consideration) classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Team leadership

Team leadership models emphasize the role of leaders in facilitating team processes and enabling team effectiveness (Zaccaro et al., 2001). Effective team leaders engage in behaviours such as setting direction, managing team dynamics, and providing support and resources.

graph TD A[Team Leadership - Hill, 2019] --> B(Task-focused Leadership) A --> C(Relational-focused Leadership) A --> D(Environmental-focused Leadership) B --> E[Goal Focusing] B --> F[Structuring for Results] B --> G[Facilitating Decisions] C --> H[Coaching] C --> I[Collaborating] C --> J[Managing Conflict] C --> K[Building Commitment] D --> L[Networking] D --> M[Advocating] D --> N[Negotiating Support] D --> O[Scanning] classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Ethical/Authentic leadership

Ethical and authentic leadership theories stress the importance of moral character, integrity, and self-awareness in leadership (Brown & Treviño, 2006; Avolio & Gardner, 2005). These approaches call for leaders to act in accordance with their values and to foster a culture of trust and transparency.

graph TD A[Authentic Leadership - Avolio & Gardner, 2005] --> B(Self-awareness) A --> C(Relational Transparency) A --> D(Balanced Processing) A --> E(Internalised Moral Perspective) classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership focuses on helping individuals and organizations navigate complex challenges and adapt to changing circumstances (Heifetz et al., 2009). Adaptive leaders encourage experimentation, learning, and the development of new strategies to address evolving needs.

graph TD A[Adaptive Leadership - Heifetz et al., 2009] --> B(Diagnose the System) A --> C(Mobilize the System) A --> D(Promote Adaptation) B --> E[Identify Adaptive Challenges] C --> F[Engage Stakeholders] D --> G[Experiment and Learn] classDef context fill:#f9f,stroke:#333,stroke-width:1px; class A context;

Adopting a multidimensional view

The value of multiple conceptual lenses

Given the complexity of leadership, relying on a single theoretical perspective may limit our understanding and effectiveness as leaders. By adopting a multidimensional view and drawing upon various conceptual lenses, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of leadership and adapt our approaches to suit different contexts (Dinh et al., 2014).

By familiarizing ourselves with the above diverse perspectives, we can develop a more nuanced and adaptable approach to leadership. We may find that certain theories resonate more strongly with our personal values and experiences, while others offer valuable tools for navigating specific challenges. By integrating insights from multiple frameworks, we can craft a leadership style that is both authentic and effective, tailored to the unique needs of our institutions and the students we serve.

Additionally, leadership frameworks focused on concrete behaviors, like Kanter's 'six keys to leading positive change' (TEDx Talks, 2013), can also complement the major theoretical models. Kanter's keys highlight accessible actions like 'showing up' and 'teaming up' that emerging leaders can readily employ in tandem with more nuanced styles and skills.

"Six keys to leading positive change" Rosabeth Moss Kaner (2013)

Adjusting leadership styles to fit your context

Effective leaders recognize that different situations require different leadership styles (Goleman, 2000). The ability to diagnose the demands of the situation and adapt one's leadership style accordingly is a hallmark of effective leadership (Yukl & Mahsud, 2010).

Contingency theories of leadership, such as Hersey and Blanchard's (1969) Situational Leadership Theory, provide valuable frameworks for matching leadership styles to the needs of followers and the demands of the task. For example, when working with a highly experienced and motivated team on a complex project, a delegating style that provides minimal direction and support may be most appropriate. In contrast, when leading a new team through a crisis situation, a more directive and supportive style may be necessary to provide clarity, structure, and emotional reassurance.

Goleman's (2000) research on emotional intelligence and leadership further highlights the importance of adaptability. He identified six distinct leadership styles – coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching – each associated with specific emotional intelligence competencies and appropriate for different situations. For example, the affiliative style, which focuses on building relationships and fostering harmony, may be particularly effective during times of team stress or conflict. The coaching style, which emphasizes personal development and long-term growth, may be most appropriate when working with individual team members to build their skills and confidence.

Leader as chameleon
Adjusting leadership style to suit your environment means embracing your inner chameleon

In higher education, I must be attuned to the ever-changing needs of our clients: students, faculty, and staff, and adapt leadership approaches accordingly. This may involve shifting between more directive and participative styles depending on the urgency and complexity of the situation, or emphasizing different aspects of our emotional intelligence to build trust, foster collaboration, or drive performance. By cultivating a flexible and context-sensitive approach to leadership, we can more effectively navigate the challenges and opportunities facing organisations.

Understanding leadership roles

In addition to adapting leadership styles, it is essential to understand the various roles leaders may play in different contexts (Mintzberg, 2009). Recognizing and developing competencies for these diverse roles can enhance leadership effectiveness.

Mintzberg's (2009) taxonomy of leadership roles provides a useful framework for understanding the multifaceted nature of leadership in organizations. He identified ten distinct roles that leaders play, grouped into three categories: interpersonal, informational, and decisional. Interpersonal roles, such as figurehead, leader, and liaison, involve representing the organization, building relationships, and motivating followers. Informational roles, such as monitor, disseminator, and spokesperson, involve gathering, sharing, and communicating information both within and outside the organization. Decisional roles, such as entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator, and negotiator, involve making strategic decisions, responding to crises, allocating resources, and resolving conflicts.

graph TD A[Managerial Roles - Mintzberg, 2009] --> B(Interpersonal) A --> C(Informational) A --> D(Decisional) B --> E[Figurehead] B --> F[Leader] B --> G[Liaison] C --> H[Monitor] C --> I[Disseminator] C --> J[Spokesperson] D --> K[Entrepreneur] D --> L[Disturbance Handler] D --> M[Resource Allocator] D --> N[Negotiator]

In the context of higher education, leaders may find themselves playing different roles depending on the situation and the needs of their stakeholders. For example, as a “figurehead”, a dean may be called upon to represent their faculty at a donor event or a community forum. As a “leader”, divisional heads may need to inspire and motivate their professional staff to embrace a new service or program. As a “liaison”, a vice chancellor may need to build relationships with external partners, such as industry leaders or policymakers, to advance the institution's goals.

By recognizing the diverse roles that leaders play and developing the skills and competencies associated with each role, we can become more versatile and effective leaders. This may involve seeking out opportunities to practice different roles, such as serving on a university-wide committee or leading a cross-functional team. It may also involve investing in our own professional development, such as attending workshops on communication, decision-making, or conflict resolution.

Ultimately, by embracing a multidimensional view of leadership, adapting styles to fit the context, and understanding the various roles played, we can become more agile, responsive, and impactful leaders. By drawing upon the wealth of knowledge and insights available in the leadership literature, we can continue to grow and develop as leaders, while also contributing to the success and well-being of students, institutions, and communities.

Some personal reflections

In my personal journey as a leader in higher education, I have found that actively exploring and applying insights from leadership research has been invaluable for my own growth, the success of my teams, and the overall organizational culture within my department. When I first stepped into a leadership role, I quickly realized that the complex challenges facing higher education institutions required a multifaceted approach to leadership. By immersing myself in the study of various leadership theories and frameworks, I have been able to expand my repertoire of skills and strategies, allowing me to adapt my leadership style to meet the unique needs of each situation.

For example, when our department was undergoing a significant restructuring process, I drew upon the principles of transformational leadership (Bass & Riggio, 2006) to inspire and motivate my team through the transition. By articulating a clear and compelling vision for the future, providing individualized support to each team member, and fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration, I was able to guide our department through the challenges of change and emerge stronger and more cohesive.

Similarly, when working to develop new programs and services, I have found that applying the concepts of shared leadership (Pearce & Conger, 2003) has been particularly effective. By empowering my staff and our partners across the organisation to take ownership of their projects, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, and fostering a sense of collective responsibility for outcomes, we have been able to drive innovation and achieve significant successes that would not have been possible through a more traditional, hierarchical approach to leadership.

Students in the libary
Students are often easily overlooked as customers in higher education leadership

Beyond my own professional development, I have seen firsthand how a commitment to evidence-based leadership practices can transform the performance of teams and the broader organizational culture. By actively promoting a culture of continuous learning, encouraging experimentation and risk-taking, and providing opportunities for leadership development at all levels of the organization, I have witnessed a remarkable shift in the way my department operates. Team members are more engaged, motivated, and proactive in seeking out new challenges and opportunities, and there is a palpable sense of shared purpose and commitment to excellence that permeates all aspects of our work.

Moreover, as a leader in higher education, I need to remember to never lose sight of the fact that our students are our customers. The decisions we make and the actions we take have a profound impact on their educational experiences and, ultimately, their future success. By applying insights from leadership research to create student-centered environments that prioritize learning, growth, and well-being, we can ensure that we are fulfilling our responsibilities to the next generation of leaders.

For instance, by drawing upon the principles of servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1970) and focusing on the needs and aspirations of our students, we have been able to create a more supportive and inclusive learning community within my department. This has involved actively seeking student input and feedback, investing in resources and programs that directly support student success, and fostering a culture of mentorship and guidance that extends beyond the classroom.

In conclusion, my personal exploration of leadership in higher education has been a transformative journey that has not only enhanced my own effectiveness as a leader but has also had a ripple effect on the success of my teams, the culture of my department, and the experiences of our students. By continuously engaging with leadership research, applying evidence-based practices, and adopting a multidimensional view of leadership, I believe that we can create more vibrant, innovative, and student-centered institutions that are better equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.

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