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Leadership for middle managers: Technical University Denmark

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What is a lead university and what does it mean to work in one?

Anders Jacobsen writes about the experiences of the Human Resources team at the Technical University Denmark (DTU) in realising a vision to embed leadership as the foundation of their institutional culture.

Anders takes us through the challenges the team faced to reach those in the middle, and where 10 years on they find themselves now.

“DTU needs to be a lead university”.

Approximately 10 years ago our former president Lars Pallesen announced a new perception of leadership as not only being an unintended distraction to the academic career of researchers, but being an integral part of the role of all middle and senior leaders at DTU. Accordingly, a set of principles for good leadership – The DTU Leadership Foundation – was established to guide middle and senior leaders throughout the organisation.

Today it seems that the leadership role has become an accepted and well-recognized part of our institutional culture.”

The Human Resource Development Team (HRD) was responsible for the establishment of a Leadership Programme to support middle managers in the disciplines of leading staff. This included developing and communicating strategic plans; understanding the responsibilities and administrative tasks of management and leadership; and facilitating the academic growth of teams and individuals. Through seminars and workshops, participants were introduced to a number of tools and perspectives during their time on The Leadership Programme. In addition to this, participants also took part in reflective groups where they could discuss their various challenges in a trusting and confidential setting.

What’s happened so far?

Today around 400 leaders have been through the DTU Leadership Programme. The feedback has in general been very positive and today it seems that the leadership role has become an accepted and well-recognized part of our institutional culture.

Offering middle managers only this narrow leadership space can be a challenge in itself – or is it?”

Nevertheless, not of all these well-intended leadership skills are put into practice. It seems that a significant part of the department Heads are reluctant to empower their middle managers. Very often, middle managers are not encouraged to contribute to the strategic visions of the departments. In some cases they aren’t given the resources, such as oversight or management of budgets, which is taken care of by the local administration instead. This has resulted in diminishing the onus on people to actively take part and contribute to a wider leadership culture.

Offering middle managers only this narrow leadership space can be a challenge in itself – or is it?

From our point of view, as leadership facilitators, we thought so. At one of our recent seminars one experienced leader claimed that:

“All important decisions are taken by the Head of Department or the central Executive Board. As a middle manager you have no significant power at all”.

Responding to this we emphasized that the power and authority you are given as a leader is negotiable.

As a middle manager in your position between the top management and your team, you risk eventually becoming silenced if you do not engage in this dialogue. Moreover, in the long run your department will suffer from the absence of your qualified input, and in doing so fresh insight that could contribute to the wider organisation’s strategic goals will be lost. All in all, it’s an insufficient deal for the single manager and for the university too.

Given both individuals and the organisation could lose out, what could be the agenda for Heads of Departments not to give their middle managers full-scale leadership?

Could it be fear of losing control with the direction of the research path? Are they uncomfortable with the thought of including others in a strategic dialogue?

Or, do they exercise a sort of shielding management in an attempt to protect their middle managers from the burden of leadership tasks, that tempt to take away the focus from their academic work?

During the Leadership Programme some participants have advocated for shielding leadership, as a guiding perspective in leading their own group. This approach could have potential to let their team members focus on their academic work and thereby achieve a high degree of motivation. The role of the leader will then be to see themselves as the servant and team-trainer who sets the appropriate resource framework and facilitates the working environment of the activities.

On the other hand, a shielding leadership can become a disservice if it cuts off the insight necessary for employees to be truly empowered in their pursuit of research and education excellence.

After 10 years, perhaps our greatest achievement within the Leadership Programmes is our effort to bring middle managers together, across departments and assist them in the establishment of a confidential space to discuss and share their leadership challenges. In doing so, they discover how different, or similar, the challenges are which they’ve faced in their own journeys in pursuit of creating a space for good leadership.


Anders Jacobsen

Anders is the Office Manager for the Human Resources Development Team at the Technical University Denmark. He works as an advisor for all strategic Human Resource issues that contribute to University’s overall Human Resources strategic vision.

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