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

shoes of others

Wearing the shoes of others


If we could step into someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes, would we make different decisions?

Might we be better equipped to improve widening participation or eliminate the attainment gap?

Stories invite us to see the world through the eyes of others. They foster empathy and enable us to connect ….

My colleague Stuart Delves tells a wonderful story[1] of how he applied for a job by posting a pair of his shoes. On the box he wrote: “To respond to people’s needs you have to put yourself in their shoes”, and on the side of one of the shoes he wrote “Try mine”.

Stories invite us to experience the world from the perspective of others, as if we are wearing their shoes. They foster empathy and enable us to connect with ourselves and others, forming the basis for genuine partnership working.

[Stories] foster empathy and enable us to connect with ourselves and others, forming the basis for genuine partnership working.”

In the autumn I facilitated with colleagues from the University Alliance an event on degree awarding gaps. In preparation for the event participants were provided with a small number of key resources. Amongst the informative, if rather dry, briefings and research papers was a report detailing the outcomes of a research project undertaken by students and staff at the University of Bristol’s Students Union[2]. The project used a mixed methods approach, including focus groups and visual diaries, to capture the stories of BAME students at a leading university.

On the day of the event it was this report that was cited by participants as being transformative because it helped them to see the student experience through the eyes of BAME students. By telling the students stories, the report kindled empathy in us as the readers. It enabled us to make connections with their experience, and it provided the basis for genuine dialogue.

If we only rely on the use of surveys and focus groups, we miss a vital ingredient: empathy.”

The ability to listen and to put yourself in the shoes of others is the key to successful leadership. If we only rely on the use of surveys and focus groups, we miss a vital ingredient: empathy.

So what sort of things could a higher education leader do to put themselves in the shoes of others and to hear their stories?

  1. Reverse mentoring – In this example reverse mentoring pairs students with executive team members to mentor them on various topics of strategic and cultural relevance.
  2. Shadowing – Walking alongside a student or a member of staff as they journey through the day, builds understanding of the day-to-day challenges faced by those working in our institutions.
  3. Photo elicitation – This technique, adapted from social sciences, invites students, possibly through a competition, to share a photograph with a caption that describes their experience, bringing their stories to life.

These are just three simple approaches that can help leaders to understand what it means to wear the shoes of students and staff. Which shoe will you try on?

[1] Dark Angels on writing 2019

[2] Bristol SU. 2017. ‘BME Attainment Gap Report’. Bristol: University of Bristol Students’ Union.  

By Graham Holden

Graham is a Client Relationship Director at Invisible Grail. An experienced leader and academic, Graham is passionate about higher education and how it transforms lives. With over thirty years of experience, Graham has led the design and delivery of transformational programmes that make a difference.

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