The balancing act for university leaders

The balancing act – leading in a world of top-down and bottom-up demands

How do you lead when faced with the daunting task of balancing top-down and bottom-up demands? Paul Gentle reflects on his experience and offers some advice for university leaders and managers who find themselves having to negotiate this precarious balance.


‘It’s the most difficult job in a university.’

This is how I often hear colleagues in universities talk about being head of a department or service; that middle management post that defines the careers of so many leaders in higher education. For many, it’s a proving ground, their first opportunity to set direction for a part of the institution, and to bring significant numbers of people with them on a journey of change.

Easily said, but much trickier to navigate in reality. You can spend every day caught between implementing the corporate demands of the institution, while doing your best to protect the wellbeing and cohesion of the teams of people you lead. If you’re not careful, you end up demonising what seem like impositions from ‘The University’ or defending the local status quo so that you appear in control of your own domain.

What this could mean is a lack of focus on creating, along with those you lead, a story of the future and what this means for your teams of colleagues.

I’ve been struck in the last few months by two examples of higher education leaders who are making concerted efforts to remain focused.

An acting head of Human Resources is aware of wanting to reposition her department within the university. She feels a new narrative needs telling:

‘We do operational excellence – but what counts is how we contribute to strategic direction. It’s about building confidence in others to make decisions.’

She’s now building a vision for how the future for the department might look – and, most importantly, why it needs to refocus its sense of purpose.

Another story comes from an academic department misunderstood by the wider university – previous heads had not succeeded in getting around, building friends politically, or working through others to make the department’s strengths clear. Worse than this, the story was that the department was leaking money and being subsidised by more successful academic areas. A new head was appointed recently to lead the department, taking on a team which had faced involuntary downsizing.

‘How do you begin to restore morale and motivation, when even those who’ve survived are feeling guilt over their colleagues who’ve gone?’

This was how he put it to me when outlining his leadership dilemma. Over time, we worked on how he could collaborate with his team to build a narrative for a future which eventually became both compelling and motivating.

As a departmental manager, you can shape the future through words. Start with words you hear from others – listen and tune into these. What underlying story do they tell?

Next, experiment with the voice you use when you speak and when you write. Discover through others’ responses which words persuade and motivate; then try using language ‘borrowed’ from different genres (poetry, crime fiction or journalism, for instance) to convey your message. You’ll be amazed by the impact this can have!


A blog by Paul Gentle, Academic Director at Invisible Grail, leadership expert and author of Engaging Leaders: The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities.

If you enjoyed this blog…

Writing your Future residential programmeDesigned to enhance the leadership and communication skills required to navigate this balance, Writing your Future is a two-day residential programme created to address the unique challenges faced by people who are responsible for leading locally on implementing institutional strategy.

Writing your Future will be running in York this May.

Published Wednesday 10 January 2018

2 comments for “The balancing act – leading in a world of top-down and bottom-up demands

  1. Paul Irvine
    January 14, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Hello Paul. My PhD was in the area of middle leadership in secondary schools, and you won’t be surprised to learn that my findings were very similar. A really interesting article – thank you.

    • Paul Gentle
      January 15, 2018 at 6:25 am

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. Did the findings of the PhD suggest that there are approaches which heads of department can use to build compelling future narratives with their teams? It would be fascinating to hear more!

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