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Academic Leadership in Higher Education

Editorial introduction:

I first ‘met’ Sam on a social media platform, where a post he shared back in November 2022 caught my interest.  He shared how, for the first time in years, he’d felt like a student again, as he was about to embark on an Academic Practice course at his university which would look at frameworks of academic leadership. I invited him to submit a blog for us here at BELMAS, and this he did!

There’s been a bit of a delay with blogs recently, but I’m really pleased to publish this one, which might well trigger some comments and reflections from our members. Do head over to Twitter and share your response to Sam’s blog, using #BELMASblog.

On a personal note, this is the last blog I will be editing as BELMAS Blog Editor, a role I’ve enjoyed for the past couple of years. I will now be stepping away and am very pleased to be handing on the baton to a wonderful group of editors who have some great ideas about how to drive the BELMAS blog forward. So, it’s onwards and upwards for the BELMAS blog, and a goodbye from me.

Thanks to the wonderful support from the BELMAS office, from Rachael when I first took on the role and then more recently from Nicola. Your gentle prompting and prodding has been really appreciated.

I wish BELMAS and its members well, and who knows, I might now submit my very own BELMAS blog!

– Suzanne 

Academic Leadership in Higher Education

Samuel Saunders 

Despite substantial musing on the topic, if one thing has become clear to me over several years working in higher education, it’s that we are not sure what we mean when we say ‘academic leadership’. On the face of it, it might initially seem quite simple: academic leaders are people like a Vice Chancellor or Chancellor, a Pro-Vice Chancellor, a Dean or an Associate Dean – in other words, someone in a position of authority over often-large swathes of an institution and its policies.

In some respects, this is indeed true; certainly, those figures are academic leaders. But there’s far more complexity to it than this. Consider what it means for one to be a ‘leader’ in one’s field of research. Lots of academics in universities are ‘leaders’ in their respective scholarly fields, but does this necessarily translate over to someone in an administrative or managerial position?

And what about those who are ‘leading’ students through undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral qualifications? Not all lecturers, tutors or supervisors who teach students will be formal ‘leaders’ in their institutions, but there is certainly an argument to be made for the ‘leader’-like nature of these figures – regardless of whether they are conscious of it or not.

In academia, then, to be a ‘leader’ is actually a complex position, and perhaps the most interesting part of this is the sheer scale at which ‘leadership’ occurs in a university. On one ‘end’ of the spectrum, a tutor might have a one-to-one tutorial with a student or a small group seminar on a specific topic, guiding those students through the course content and helping them reach the desired outcomes. On the other, a Vice Chancellor might represent a university at an international conference that considers the large ideological perspectives of higher education in general, and outlines the priorities, activities or future of their institution to others.

Between these two extremes we also find other kinds of leadership in higher education. Some, like myself, work to guide academics in developing new programmes and improving their teaching practices. Others might provide guidance for ensuring the quality of research and teaching and enforce policy and procedure when necessary.

In short, one might argue that everyone who works in higher education is, in some way, a leader – even if they are not in management. However, I can quite confidently predict that a significant proportion of those working in universities would not consider themselves as ‘academic leaders’ – at least, not without some consideration first.

Models of Leadership: Developing a Leadership Philosophy

The question which remains, then, is how to understand being in a leadership position and operating successfully within it – even when you’re not aware that you’re occupying it.

There are two steps to this: understanding the concept of leadership styles (and their limitations) and then developing a leadership philosophy – a useful exercise even for those who are not working in a management-facing role.

Leadership styles are multifarious, sometimes conflicting and in many cases unappealing to those who don’t ideologically align with their approach.

Perhaps the best-known leadership styles are the transactional and the transformative – and both have their place in higher education. Transactional leadership, also called ‘managerial’ leadership consolidates human interactions into a series of transactions – and is framed around concepts like reward and sanction, and is often goal- or salary-driven. This might seem overbearing or even cold-hearted, but it’s more complex than this: if it operates at all levels then it can actually be unifying, and in higher education specifically it can be useful for students to conceptualise their studies in transactional terms at peak assessment points – fostering attitudes such as ‘I need to do this, because it will be on my assessment’. Transformative leadership, meanwhile, is more vision-based, and requires both a strong ideological force behind it to inspire action in others, and a strong presence and to help guide and develop that action. In higher education, this might look like glacial institutional change to foster, say, a greater focus on research-informed pedagogy.

Others might find a comfortable place in ‘quiet’ or laissez-faire leadership, where colleagues are allowed to perform their duties as they see fit with minimal steerage, and the leader ‘models’ the behaviour they wish to see replicated or followed. This is relatively common in all education phases: for example, teachers will tend to teach to their own style and there is little that administrative managers can do to effect specific change. Researchers, too, will opt for their own approach to a project or experiment. In this situation, the leadership must be exemplified and then followed by others. This is also common in higher education, as it is often conceptualised as based on a trust relationship between colleagues.

Developing a leadership philosophy can help those working in higher education to identify what works best for them within the context of their own position – regardless of whether they are working in management or not. The first thing to recognise is that, while one might be drawn to one particular style over another, it’s likely that a blended approach to leadership styles will be needed in the context of any given situation. But a leadership philosophy can help to centralise what it means to be a leader to each individual, and can help conceptualise a set of approaches into a single coherent idea.

To begin thinking about a philosophy, one might consider what they value in a leader. Do you value leadership that emphasises freedom and creativity to perform a set of tasks? Or do you prefer leadership that maintains awareness of what everyone is doing, and how far they are along in the process? Also consider what you want to achieve in their particular context – what is your mission, and how will your leadership affect this. Thirdly, you might also think about your personality and how it matches with those around you. Will a particular leadership style mesh with, or clash with, those in your immediate circle or team?

The main take away here is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership in higher education; as with most things, context is king. But there are at least two universal truths: one, on some level, everyone in higher education is a leader. Two: everyone has thoughts on what it means to be a good leader. The tricky part is to turn yourself into that good leader – and having an effective leadership philosophy, informed by your values and context, is perhaps the first step to achieving that goal.


Samuel Saunders, Centre for Innovation in Education, University of Liverpool