Leading People is Leading Diversity

‘Reality is diverse; therefore a true reflection of reality includes diversity.’  Nancy Kline

Shirley Wardell, programme director of our research leadership development programmes discusses the importance of encouraging diverse thinking and insight into the valuable skills every leader should prioritise.

I have come to think of the skills leaders need to understand the diversity issues as mainstream leadership skills.  To my mind managing people is managing diversity. Diversity goes beyond minority groups and the obvious power imbalances.  Diversity extends to the subtle depth of how we think, which has a direct impact on how well we perform in our jobs.

Diversity grows when people have the ability to hear, openly, what everybody thinks.  Having practised that skill, with people we believe are similar to us, we may be better prepared to listen to those we assume are more different to us.  The charming surprise is; that as Maya Angelou says, ‘We are more similar than we are different.’ Once we have accepted that we are more likely to be similar in a broad way, appreciating the specific differences seems to be the key.  So how can we be sure that we are able to allow, or even encourage, different ways of thinking?

I choose the Thinking Environment® to help me, and my clients, to create the conditions for diverse thinking to flourish. When you run an event in a Thinking Environment®; everyone has a turn. That means; you go round the group and ask everyone what they think.  Sometimes people tell me it takes too long, but they are really stumped when I ask them who they would leave out of the round.

In an event such as this no-one interrupts and participant say; ‘If I don’t interrupt, I might forget my idea?’ And again, they look a bit blank when I ask, ‘What if the person you interrupt forgets theirs?’ Giving turns, not interrupting, appreciating each other, asking how to make things better and a positive philosophy are a few of the ways to get everyone involved in a productive way.

The Thinking Environment® has ten components; however there are a few principles that sum it up for me:

  • The way we listen to someone has an impact on the quality of their thinking.  If we are able focus on them, stop judging and create a time and space for them; the quality of their thinking improves.  At a recent workshop I asked how it feels to be listened to really well and people said they felt valued, important, as if their ideas matter, that they have a contribution to make, happy, it improved their self esteem, relaxed and intelligent.  Well, if all those things can be achieved by, ‘just listening’ we should perhaps put listening at the top of the leadership skills list.
  • When you think on behalf of someone else you are disempowering them.  When you think your ideas are better, or you are simply too busy for them to find their own answer, you are stopping them from thinking and therefore stopping them from learning and growing.  Being able to develop staff has become one of the most valuable assets to Institutions and leaders who can do this will have the evidence of their success in their research output.
  • A positive philosophy is required to help people perform well.  Our expectations will have an impact on the outcomes.  Those expectations include what I expect from the person and what my prejudices are about that person. I need to be able to see there are numerous and unknown possibilities yet to be achieved for every individual.
  • We also need to examine our assumptions about the world.  What we expect to be possible in this office, this organisation, this market, this country and this world; will have an impact on our own and our team’s thinking.  Leadership training needs to explore the assumptions we make and the impact that has on performance; and then show how to, pragmatically, choose assumptions that will help us perform better.

Research Team Leadership and Leading Research Leaders are run in a Thinking Environment® and include many of the reliable principles and actions that help research leaders to think. They are then able to pass that favour on to their teams and collaborators.

The Thinking Environment® was developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think

Find out more about Shirley Wardell by visiting our website www.lfhe.ac.uk/resprog

Top 5 lessons for new leaders

In this blog, we share the top five lessons that previous participants on our blended programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership (TTL) found valuable on their leadership journey.

1. It was crucial to have a safe space to take risks
In order to gain confidence in learning new leadership skills, it is crucial that new leaders have access to an environment where they are encouraged to take risks. No one likes to make mistakes, but mistakes can give us our greatest lessons and having a risk free environment to make them can be insightful.

2. There is not a definitive leadership style
On TTL, we explore a variety of different leadership styles from Commanding to Democratic* and participants noticed that each of them have something positive to offer in any leadership scenario. A good leader will be able to adapt different leadership styles in relation to circumstances or indeed the people they work with.

3. Respect individual differences
Difference within teams is far more useful than homogeneity. If new leaders can understand their colleagues’ different personality preferences, they can adapt their leadership style to steer their team more effectively.

4. Coaching is an undervalued skill
Coaching is essentially about asking the right questions rather than providing the right answers. New leaders will find this an important tool to help build their listening and questioning skills to effectively support the individuals in their team.

5. Clarity is essential when dealing with change
One of the most valuable lessons TTL taught those new to leadership was that whenever change is implemented, it requires clarity in communication and engagement. This isn’t an easy task, however it is important in those situations to find examples of best practice and relate it to their own change experience.

Are you looking for development for your new leaders?
There is still time for your new leaders to take part in Transition to Leadership. The programme takes place through Thursday 16 March 2017– Thursday 22 June 2017 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities.

If you would like to send colleagues onto the programme please visit our website: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl or alternatively you can contact Rita Walters, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, E: rita.walters@lfhe.ac.uk or T: 0203 468 4817.

*The leadership styles mentioned are from a model created by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee in their 2002 book, “Primal Leadership.”

A future focus for higher education


Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development reflects upon leadership, the future and working with influencers in higher education.

While 9 November 2016 will forever be associated with tumultuous political change in the US, it also brought into stark relief the change process that political decisions unleash across all sectors – and the relationship between our two higher education sectors. In such circumstances, leadership and the ability to think interdependently becomes increasingly important.  On 9 November I was with colleagues from across HEIs – my first formal engagement with the higher education community – at the annual Staff Development Conference. My session was on Higher Education: Future Focus, which fitted with the theme of the conference, Future Fit, and the commitment to developing excellent practice that staff developers share with those of us from external development organisations.

Exploring the five main forces driving change globally “now and next” (using the ideas of futurologist and personal colleague Richard Watson), we first looked at the potential impact of demographic change, including an aging population and aging workforce, for the UK and the challenges and opportunities this brings to higher education. Just hours after Trump’s election victory, the next of the five forces – power shifts east – was also a stimulus in a post-Brexit world that most staff developer colleagues agreed was in sharper focus. The impact caused through being better connected globally (the third force) and sustainability (the fourth force) were concepts that most colleagues found familiar. The last of the five forces, GRIN technologies (genetic prophesy, robotics, intuitive internet, nano materials and artificial intelligence), was found to be of topical relevance as many staff developers were focused on new learning technologies and the impact of these on teaching and learning in HEIs.

When hypothesising about the impact of two of the five forces – demographics and GRIN technologies – staff development colleagues expressed the importance of up-skilling themselves. They also recognised the need to extend their influence to enable a greater number of academic and non-academic colleagues to appreciate the change process necessary for HEIs to face the future with confidence and maximise the potential benefits and challenges.

This session, in tandem with the following session, enabled staff development colleagues to focus on a future that gives priority to growing a learning culture within their organisations and enabling their HEIs to foster cultures which are responsive to changes in their domain and in which innovation will thrive. This is Future Focus.

More recently, following the SDF Conference, I was pleased to facilitate a morning with Richard Watson for senior strategic leaders in HEIs. With Richard’s expert input, it was an opportunity to initiate a conversation with a group of senior leaders on how the five forces Richard associates with global change will impact higher education in the four countries of the United Kingdom.

Richard reminded us of the challenge that leaders in higher education face, contrasting the pace of volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity that characterise this current period with the mindset, tool set and agility needed to tackle the issues this period brings. This is sometimes matched by a cohort of leaders who are anxious and who may appear slow to react as events unfold.

Richard set out the process he follows for building an exploration of the future. This begins with identifying the big questions you believe you might face as leaders in your sector. From these ‘‘burning questions” come a series of trends and patterns related to the questions.  These trends and patterns lend themselves to scenario planning (an activity with which many sectors engage but to which few give enough time). The generation of these future scenarios is often predicated on leaders being able to look at what would need to disappear and, conversely, what new innovative practices and mindsets may be needed for the new possibility to become a reality.

We applied this process to a short guided exploration of the future for higher education from the perspective of this senior leadership group. Reflecting on the burning questions generated by the senior leaders, a number of these were focused on the impact of future demographic trends on higher education. These questions included the impact of declining fertility rates, and an ageing population. In the ensuing discussion, the opportunities and challenges of demographic change led to a possible future trend of growing higher education provision targeting the silver surfer generation and an explosion of concepts such as the University of the Third Age alongside more catastrophic predictions eg university closures due to falling UK student numbers.

Leaders were keen to explore the impact of technology and innovation made possible through the growth of artificial intelligence and the “industrialisation” of learning via enhanced smart technology, as Richard referred to a blurring between digital and physical. This leadership activity requires the strategic change leaders to take a step back and engage in bold thinking. Higher education leaders may not be able to predict all that the future holds in the next 30 years but they can and should be able to influence it.

As the minutes ended on my second interaction with leaders in my new sector, I recalled and shared a philosophy I have held as a developer of leaders for 26 years and across a number of sectors: if we can understand how we learn, then we can understand how we lead.

We are committed to using the insights that this senior leadership group produced in co-creating new innovative leadership development interventions. The graphic above demonstrates the possibilities of working in new ways as we continue to support the Future Focus for higher education.


Vijaya Nath leads the Leadership Development operation at the Leadership Foundation. The portfolio of development for higher education institutions include options that are delivered face-to-face, online only and also in a mix of both formats (blended learning). They are designed for leaders, managers and those that aspire to such roles from across all disciplines and types of institutions. Programmes and events include one-day events for governors; the flagship Top Management Programme, that has over 700 of the most senior people in higher education in in its alumni including 60 current vice-chancellors. There is also Aurora, the women-only development scheme that has already seen almost 2,500 participants in its first three years.

Watch Vijaya Nath discuss the future of higher education and the need to create political powerbrokers on our YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVUzlTtfCUI 

Just the Jobs


by Tom Irvine

There must be more blogs about Steve Jobs than there are apples on earth. But here goes. I am prompted to blog about Steve Jobs as I saw in the last couple of weeks that his biography by Walter Isaacson came out in paperback. I got the hardback as a Christmas pressie in 2011 and found it both fascinating and troubling. I keep the book on my bookcase just outside the kitchen with the front cover facing you as you walk past – I like that it challenges me to think about leadership and success and how the two are both illusive and hard to sustain.

The ‘leadership luvvies’ will hate this book – it describes the genius of Jobs but also talks about his bullying and obsessive behaviour. I loved it from cover to cover. The biography was authorised by Jobs and he was interviewed many times for the book. He however had no editorial input into it, but seemingly obsessed about the front cover that would be used. Isaacson interviewed shedloads of people – fans and critics of Jobs – in the writing of this book and it shows in the range of opinions about his style and approach.

I won’t go through the many successes of Apple and the products that he inspired. Who needs to – they are all around us? I must say however that I still fondle my old iPhone 3 as it is just so tactile. Maybe there is a group I could join to help me with this?

What I do want to do in this blog is two things – firstly to muse about the challenges of managing ‘talent’ and secondly about how you could ever imagine leading someone like Steve Jobs through ‘change’.

Jobs has been described as volatile and obnoxious – but he helped create products that had simplicity, utility and beauty at their core. He stole, bullied, denied being a father to his illegitimate child, refused to shower frequently in his early days, and cheated his friends. This young hippie, truth-seeking, tech-savvy hothead was obsessed about the beauty of products and their functionality and ease of use.

It would be a cheap joke to equate the behaviour of Jobs to that displayed by colleagues in the Academy. But I like cheap, as long as it is cheerful. Imagine being a dean who is just about to commence a ‘performance appraisal’ with a Jobs-like character. It would go like this: “Well Steve, I’d like to talk with you about how things are going with your post-docs.” You can imagine the response. But at the Leadership Foundation we hear all the time the challenges that leaders (particularly academic leaders) have when trying to have that ‘difficult conversation’. If this is an issue for you then you might be interested to know that at the Leadership Foundation we are just about to publish a major piece of research on *performance management – have a look at our website for details.

The other challenge would be being led through change by Steve Jobs. He must have had people around him who could translate his vision in a business reality. You don’t employ 700,000 people in China without being able to organise a business process, or review it to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Nevertheless ‘change’ would be an interesting challenge in a business that had SJ at the helm.

Leaders in higher education face being asked to lead increasing amounts of change – and many involve colleagues who sometimes show greater loyalty to their academic disciplines than they do to the institution. This makes leading change in higher education uniquely difficult in my view. I met with a vice-chancellor recently who said to me: “I don’t mind what academics do as long as it is excellent.” Maybe that is the key – Steve Jobs may have had an obsession with being ‘excellent’ and maybe that carried the day. A focus on excellence – whether it be in teaching or research – is however not a simple thing to carry through. If change is becoming so pervasive and the challenges ever present, then perhaps a focus on excellence will lead to a greater chance of success.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s Consulting team.

*Performance management approaches in UK HEIs, by Monica Franco-Santos, Mike Bourne and Dina Gray of Cranfield School of Management will be published by the Leadership Foundation in November.

Higher ground: inspiring leaders?

Inspiring leaders
When I was asked to talk about an inspiring leader I was frankly nonplussed because I don’t think of people as being inspiring. When I think of what inspires me I think of books, music, theatre and art, for example – things that are constant in what they are.

To me thinking of a person as inspiring is more problematic. People do inspiring things but they are not necessarily inspiring people. We often only know their public persona not the face behind the mask.

People can act in a truly inspirational way, rising to a challenge in the spur of the moment, like the 3 women who went to the aid of the fallen soldier the other day. And then there are those who do inspiring things as part of their everyday lives.

When I started to think along these lines, about the people I admire, I realised that a lot of them have a trait in common that I really do find inspiring – they are people who rise in adversity – who have succeeded despite the odds being stacked against them. People who face adversity every day of their lives, often throughout their whole life, but overcome it through sheer determination and the will to succeed.

I was lucky enough to have tickets for the Paralympics’ athletics last year and watched Oscar Pistorius and the other blade runners compete. It was truly inspiring! An inspiring act but I’m not sure that any of us would think of Pistorius as an inspiring person just now! I have long been a fan and admirer of Stevie Wonder. Here is a musician who has influenced a generation of other musicians. Blind since birth, one of six children raised by a single mother in Detroit, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist developed into one of the most creative musical figures of the late 20th century – truly an inspiration. As indeed was his fellow blind musician – Ray Charles.

Stephen Hawking is another person I admire. A theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21 and given a life expectancy of two years by doctors. After a lifetime of exceptional academic contributions, last year, 49 years after his diagnosis, we saw Stephen Hawking take a key role in the Paralympics opening ceremony, narrating the Enlightenment segment. His sheer determination and will-power to overcome his disabilities is truly inspirational.

These really are the people who I admire. Inspiring people? I don’t know. Doing truly inspiring things? 100% yes. Influential? Without a doubt!

Susie Norton is the Leadership Foundation’s marketing and communications manager.