Leadership and Higher Education Featured Image

The midwit challenges in higher education

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, the quality of leadership within academic institutions plays a pivotal role in shaping the experiences of both staff and students. Noah Carl's thought-provoking article, "Are we ruled by midwits?" delves into the intellectual capacities of elected representatives, raising concerns about the competence of those entrusted with making crucial decisions. While the focus is primarily on political figures in the United Kingdom, the implications resonate beyond politics, prompting a reflection on the state of leadership in Australian higher education.

Understanding the concept of "midwit" leadership

Carl's article introduces the term "midwit" to describe individuals who possess above-average intelligence but lack the exceptional cognitive abilities often associated with effective leadership. In the context of higher education, "midwit" leaders may be those who have achieved academic or administration success and attained leadership positions but may not possess the necessary critical thinking skills, creativity, and strategic vision to drive innovation and progress within their institutions.

The potential consequences of having "midwit" leaders in academia and higher education more generally are significant. These leaders may struggle to make informed decisions, adapt to changing circumstances, and inspire their teams to push boundaries and explore new frontiers. As a result, institutions led by "midwit" individuals may experience stagnation, missed opportunities, and a failure to keep pace with the evolving demands of the higher education landscape.

Examining the current state of leadership selection in Australian universities

To understand the prevalence of "midwit" leadership in Australian higher education, it is essential to examine the criteria commonly used in selecting higher education leaders. Traditional indicators such as academic qualifications, research publications, and years of experience often form the basis of academic leadership appointments. However, these criteria may not adequately capture the cognitive abilities and leadership skills necessary for effective leadership in today's complex academic environment.

Some universities have begun to recognize the need for a more holistic approach to leadership selection. This may involve incorporating assessments of problem-solving abilities, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking skills into the selection process. By adopting a more comprehensive evaluation of leadership potential, universities can identify individuals who possess the necessary cognitive capabilities and interpersonal skills to drive institutional success.

One notable example is the University of Melbourne's new framework on their LeaderShift leadership assessment and development platform, which outlines the key capabilities required for effective leadership at various levels within the institution. The framework emphasizes the importance of strategic thinking, adaptability, and the ability to lead and inspire others, in addition to traditional academic achievements. At the heart of LeaderShift is the LeaderShape, a diagnostic tool identifying nine common leadership capabilities across all levels and sectors. Developed by the Centre for Workplace Leadership, the LeaderShift Capability Framework is based on a comprehensive meta-review of leadership literature, industry consultations, and extensive quantitative testing. This framework integrates leader/follower relations and measures capabilities essential for effective leadership in complex situations, incorporating items from established leadership and psychology scales adapted for clarity and consistency.

The role of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills

While cognitive abilities are undoubtedly important for effective leadership, it is crucial not to overlook the role of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are better equipped to understand and manage their own emotions, as well as those of their team members. They can create a positive and supportive work environment, foster collaboration, and navigate complex interpersonal dynamics.

Moreover, leaders with strong interpersonal skills are able to communicate effectively, build relationships, and influence others. These skills are particularly valuable in academia, where building partnerships, securing funding, and engaging with diverse stakeholders are essential for success.

Assessing and developing emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills in potential leaders can be achieved through a combination of psychometric assessments, 360-degree feedback, and targeted training programs. By investing in the development of these skills, universities can cultivate well-rounded leaders who can effectively navigate the challenges of the academic landscape.

Addressing potential criticisms and finding balance

Critics may argue that placing too much emphasis on cognitive abilities in leadership selection runs the risk of promoting elitism and undervaluing other important qualities such as empathy, resilience, and the ability to foster inclusive environments. It is important to acknowledge these concerns and strive for a balanced approach that considers a range of leadership skills and attributes.

While cognitive abilities are essential, they should be viewed as one component of a larger set of competencies required for effective leadership. By combining cognitive assessments with evaluations of emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and other relevant qualities, universities can identify well-rounded leaders who can drive positive change and navigate the complexities of the academic landscape.

There are numerous examples of successful academic leaders who demonstrate a range of abilities beyond just high cognitive capacity. These leaders often excel in their ability to inspire and motivate others, foster collaboration, and create inclusive and supportive environments. By recognizing and celebrating these diverse leadership qualities, universities can move away from a narrow focus on cognitive abilities and embrace a more holistic approach to leadership development.

Implications for students and society

The quality of academic leadership has far-reaching implications for students and society as a whole. Leaders who possess the necessary cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills are better equipped to create an enriching educational experience for students. They can foster a culture of innovation, critical thinking, and lifelong learning, preparing students to become future leaders and change-makers.

Moreover, universities with strong leadership can make significant contributions to their communities and beyond. They can drive research breakthroughs, collaborate with industry partners, and shape public discourse on critical issues. By developing the next generation of thinkers and leaders, universities play a vital role in driving social progress and addressing global challenges.

Practical recommendations for change

To address the challenges posed by "midwit" leadership and promote effective leadership in Australian higher education, universities can consider the following practical recommendations:

  1. Review and refine leadership selection criteria:
    • Incorporate assessments of cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills into the selection process.
    • Develop leadership competency frameworks that encompass coveted soft-skills - problem-solving, critical thinking, and adaptability.
  2. Invest in leadership development programs:
    • Provide targeted training and development opportunities to enhance the cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills of current and aspiring leaders.
    • Implement mentoring and coaching programs to support the growth and development of emerging leaders.
  3. Foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement:
    • Encourage experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from failures to drive innovation and progress.
    • Regularly review and update leadership development programs to ensure they remain relevant and effective.
  4. Promote diversity and inclusion in leadership:
    • Actively seek out and develop leaders from diverse backgrounds and experiences to bring fresh perspectives and ideas.
    • Ensure that leadership opportunities are accessible and inclusive, removing barriers that may prevent underrepresented groups from advancing.
  5. Collaborate and share best practices:
    • Encourage collaboration and knowledge-sharing among universities to identify and promote effective leadership practices.
    • Participate in sector-wide initiatives and forums to discuss challenges and share insights related to leadership development.

Implementing these recommendations will require a concerted effort from universities, as well as support from government bodies and industry partners. It may involve challenges such as resistance to change, resource constraints, and the need for cultural shifts within institutions. However, by taking a proactive and strategic approach, universities can overcome these challenges and cultivate a new generation of capable and visionary leaders.


Noah Carl's article serves as a wake-up call for Australian higher education, prompting us to reflect on the intellectual capacities of our academic leaders and the potential consequences of "midwit" leadership. By examining the current state of leadership selection, recognizing the importance of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, and implementing practical strategies for change, we can work towards developing leaders who possess the cognitive abilities, creativity, and vision necessary to drive progress and innovation in our institutions.

The future of Australian higher education depends on our ability to cultivate and support leaders who can inspire, engage, and empower students, staff, and communities. By embracing a holistic approach to leadership development and committing to continuous improvement, we can create a vibrant and thriving higher education sector that meets the evolving needs of our society and contributes to a brighter future for all.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.