Where are the leaders?

Dr Paul Gentle

While writing a book proposal a few months ago, I asked my first-year undergraduate son for some feedback on an idea I had for the title. I knew his response would be frank and direct; what I hadn’t expected was the thinking it would provoke in me.

When I gave him my suggestion, he looked nonplussed. “The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in our universities”, I said, already embarrassed that the words weren’t exactly rolling off the tongue.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if his implied disapproval was because the very length of the title took up half the characters in a tweet. Or maybe it was down to the sheer uphill struggle involved in inspiring anything in a university, from his perspective. One way or another, he remained more than usually silent for quite some time.

When asking participants on our programmes (such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership) to reflect on where leadership can be found in a university, I’ve often been encouraged by their responses. The starting point is frequently an assertion that leadership isn’t confined to what senior managers do – or middle managers, or indeed necessarily any managers. It simply isn’t automatically associated with positional power.

What really seems to count in many situations, people think, is a set of personal qualities associated with leadership presence. Those individuals who can tap into this successfully are able to invest energy and emotion in relationships, facilitate collaborative conversations and build teams with a clear sense of mutually-agreed direction. People with these qualities can be found everywhere in universities – in the student body, in research centres, in estates and maintenance staff, in teaching teams, in offices… regardless of pay grade.

The challenge for universities is to recognise that they are already ‘leaderful organisations’, and that if they could align personally influential individuals with their institutional direction of travel, they may indeed inspire collective commitment (Bolden et al.)

A few days after our initial exchange, my son called me into his room.

“I’ve got an idea for that book of yours”, he said.

“Oh yes?”

“Yeah – be straight up about it – ‘Who’s in charge around here?’”

Paul Gentle is Director of Prgrammes.

His book title is Engaging Leaders: The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities and the first draft will be with Routledge by the end of the summer.