The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.


The joys and pitfalls of being all-knowing


To seem all-knowing can be an irritating quality. Yet when it signals a trustful working relationship, it’s quite the opposite of a problem.

Paul Gentle argues that in helping others to know us better, we kindle the appetite and mindfulness to understand and empathise with colleagues. This builds confidence and trust between one another.

In programmes we run about defining and shaping creative futures, there’s an exercise where we ask people a question to channel their thinking:

‘If you could ask an all-seeing, all-knowing Oracle one question about the part of the university you lead in the year 2025, what would it be?’

Having heard responses from dozens of people in the last twelve months, I can reveal that they fall broadly into two categories.

The first and most common takes a horizon-scanning perspective. Veterans of STEEP, PESTLE, STEEPLE and even DEEPLIST see opportunities to talk about their predictions for changing local and national environments around the world. These depend on what we believe about shifts in politics, mindsets and populations, and on the progress we think we might have made, by whatever date we have in mind, on profound global challenges. These prepare us well for high-quality strategic thinking.

We note along the way that Millennials are about to outnumber all other generations put together in the higher education workforce. We debate whether online learning will have contributed to more hopeful environmental sustainability. We ask ourselves where and how funding models will have led us.

They are curious to know how we might develop and express our humanity in ways that build on the idea of universities as virtuous institutions.

The second set of responses draws on a more self-examining perspective. These come from people who seek other, more subtle insights from their omniscient prophet. They are curious to know how we might develop and express our humanity in ways that build on the idea of universities as virtuous institutions.

They ask questions about how we will be learning in the next decade, and in what kinds of ways our relationships between colleagues and with our students will have changed.

More trustful, challenging and fulfilling relationships

You might hear: “I knew you were going to say that!”

When we hear those we work with talking with warmth and empathy about how much they value understanding how we think and behave, we can be sure we are onto something good. This is a sign of a healthy, interdependent working relationship where it’s simply not necessary to second-guess what the other person might think or feel. It’s the kind of phrase likely to be heard in an organisational culture where all members lead, everything is open to question and adaptation, and explicit values are lived out through daily practices.

Cultures like these are the very opposite of the deferential ones that continue to stifle human potential in some parts of our universities. Deferential behaviours can lead to unspoken thoughts and unrealised ideas.

Intuitive working

we remain open to staying at the learning edge of our comfort zones, exploring new opportunities to think and work differently.

So what does it take to build the kinds of relationships where we believe that colleagues might genuinely be omniscient?

This is not the same as encouraging ‘group think’, that dangerous state of being where over-familiarity leads to complacency and lack of challenge. It’s about ensuring rather that we remain open to staying at the learning edge of our comfort zones, exploring new opportunities to think and work differently.

More than anything, this requires a climate distinguishable by a complete absence of fear and blame, and where rich feedback abounds.

In the last few months, I’ve started learning how and when my colleagues prefer me to communicate, what brings out the best in people we work with, and why they might not always find it easy to read my changing emotions.

That’s because we work at learning to be wise, reflective and brave, and we are fortunate to partner with the very best people in higher education.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

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