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Winning hearts and minds - tulip

Winning hearts and minds… and disclosing some vulnerability along the way


In an article in the Times Higher Education, David Bell offered his advice to the new Minister for Higher Education Sam Gyimah on how he might start off on the right foot. But what can other senior leaders learn from this? And what role does winning the hearts and minds of colleagues play along the way? Paul Gentle, Academic Director at Invisible Grail, explores.


The appointment of a new Minister for Higher Education is in many ways like the arrival of an incoming Dean, Director or Pro Vice-chancellor.

There’s an unfamiliar environment and culture to understand, critical relationships to build, and a story to unfold of what is and perhaps isn’t going to be different.

In a recent article, ‘The heavy lifting is done’*, David Bell offers our new Minister advice on what to expect now that he is fronting up the Higher Education agenda, and what he might need to consider before plunging in feet first.

First, there’s a call to reflect on the tightrope needed to walk the role. How will Gyimah apply emotional intelligence and resilience now that he is responsible for leading a passionate, diverse and determined sector?

Bell’s first piece of advice is to urge Gyimah to beware of crossing the prime minister, and to ‘be robust in his dealings with the sector’ – wise words for anyone whose position requires highly-attuned political awareness.

Next is the importance of engaging with people. There are early opportunities to ‘reset the tone of the relationship’ and ‘to quickly say something powerful about the constructive relationship that he wants to forge’.

The parallels are stark, but not surprising. The approaches which will work for Gyimah are those which serve any leader well; ability to empathise (‘understand more about what drives staff and students’), to listen in order to discover what motivates others (‘buy himself time to think’), and to build a compelling narrative (‘press the case’ and ‘work with the sector to promote a welcoming message’). These are all influencing skills which attract people and encourage them to take part in, and champion, university life. And now more than ever, these are important stories to be told.

[vulnerability] can be a huge factor in connecting with those you need to influence in a genuine way, and in winning hearts and minds.

Away from the public glare, Sam Gyimah may also find it helpful to disclose some vulnerability by asking what it is he needs to learn from HE sector leaders. This can be a huge factor in connecting with those you need to influence in a genuine way, and in winning hearts and minds. If he can also catalyse and unlock creativity in the leaders he engages with by being authentic, he will have made a very fresh start indeed.

The challenges that Gyimah face are on the minds of many people in the sector. In the last month I’ve been approached by someone seeking advice on how to address key priorities for their academic leaders, including: enhancing emotional intelligence and political awareness; developing a compelling vision; building resilience as a leader. There are no easy answers, but when you’re looking for a place to start, finding common ground, being authentic and sharing a little bit of vulnerability go a long way.


*Reference: David Bell, ‘The heavy lifting is done, but Gyimah still has bridges to build’, Times Higher Education, 18 January 2018.

This blog was inspired by David Bell’s article in the Times Higher Education, and was written by Paul Gentle, leadership expert and Academic Director at Invisible Grail.

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