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An appetite for leadership – what’s on the menu?

At the same time as restaurants are opening up again, university colleagues who are hungry for leadership might find opportunities to make an impact by trying something different on the menu. Academic Director Paul Gentle explores.

One thing has become crystal clear to me since I started facilitating online programmes recently: there’s some outstanding work being done by academic and professional services colleagues throughout our higher education system. Everybody says it’s incredible how people have galvanised around the need to catalyse learning and support students remotely.

There are amazing qualities of leadership evident among that cadre of university managers who can often be unsung heroes”

And there are amazing qualities of leadership evident among that cadre of university managers who can often be unsung heroes – these are the heads of Schools and Departments, who occupy the most demanding roles in universities*. The challenges of leading while working remotely have sharpened an already steep incline to a vertiginous angle.

I discovered the challenges of the HoD role early on in my career, when I was appointed head in my thirties. What’s often seen by onlookers as a combination of timetabling, overseeing contracts for associate lecturers, and resolving minor disputes and email flare-ups can be regarded as unenviable work. The kind of thing that requires a strong stomach.


There’s plenty on the menu right now that points to the toughness of the head of department role: vanishing resources, policy vacuums, global crisis. My own term as head, in a time of sector expansion, seems to have been in a golden era.

Today’s challenges can result in the head feeling trapped by circumstance, mediating communiqués from senior management in attempts to make them seem palatable to demoralised colleagues. Without the human warmth of face-to-face interaction, this feeling has become even stronger.

There’s undoubtedly a plateful of management capabilities that heads need to assemble to be able to do their job effectively. But that’s not the full picture.

Main Course

Heads are faced with a choice of a tightly-prescribed fixed price menu based around juggling complex management tasks, or they can choose, even in these constraining times, from an a la carte approach that also embraces leadership.

I’m encouraged, every week in my work in universities (at a distance), by how I see heads of department who are deeply committed to stewardship in their work. They’re present for their teams, and they understand their leadership role in terms of the positive outcomes it can bring to the working environment and performance of their departments. This encourages and enables their colleagues to demonstrate belief in their teams’ potential, and to devote energy to culture-building and working strategically.

She has tapped into her inbuilt optimism to coach her colleagues into adopting a positive, problem-solving approach.”

One of the most striking examples is a head in a school that’s heavily dependent on professional placement activity for its students. While it would be easy to succumb to despondency in the face of gargantuan challenges, she has found the strength and resilience to turn this moment into an opportunity. She has tapped into her inbuilt optimism to coach her colleagues into adopting a positive, problem-solving approach.

In turn, the school leadership team has become an online community which not only provides a supportive sounding-board; it also generates ideas through sharing challenges. One of its recent commitments is to create a grass roots-led approach to devising a Colleagues’ Charter: a living framework which will tell the story of how people can be their best, for their students and for one another. This comes from a determined and spirited embrace of the possibilities of headship.

Just Desserts

This kind of leadership leads to results: in increased recruitment and retention, enhanced student experiences and feedback, stronger research and enterprise activity, and close partnerships between academics and professional services colleagues. It can also lead to greater honesty and emotional intelligence in working relationships.

‘I don’t always know what I’m doing either.’

In a recent example of an event I facilitated just before the lockdown, a manager heard a colleague disclosing that he was out of his depth in a role assigned to him. After less than a moment’s pause, the manager said, ‘I don’t always know what I’m doing either.’

You could have heard a pin drop. From that moment on, everyone in the room was determined to become a team.

Seeing the beneficial fruits of their work is fulfilling for successful heads of department who show an appetite for committing to the real leadership challenges. 

It’s important not to be intimidated by the a la carte menu, and to try experimenting with it a little. See what happens if you season your online meetings by showing genuine concern for individuals around the virtual room. Or, ask colleagues for feedback on how productive a discussion has been and what you could all do to make it even better next time. You might be surprised by the warmth of response you get if you move away from the management diet and add a couple of extra ingredients.


Bolden, R., Gosling, J., O’Brien, A., Peters, K. and A. Haslam (2012) Academic leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education.  Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Middlehurst, R. (1993) Leading academics. SRHE/Open University Press.

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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