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This piece by Oliver Vettori of the Vienna University of Economics and Business analyses the tightrope walk of university leadership. It points out the importance of getting experts to agree on a way forward, of grooming the institution’s change readiness, and of finding ways of sharing leadership.

Funambulists are fascinating: they walk a fine line, sometimes hundreds of meters up in the air, with some in the audience secretly expecting them to fail – and fall. In many ways, leadership in higher education is much the same. Leaders in universities need to strike a balance between providing direction and convincing people to join them on the way - without losing sight of the intricacies of an expert organisation. This seems even more complicated in the field of learning and teaching, where the well-argued need for diversity and context sensitivity often runs the risk of leading to a pronounced relativism. But even though “all roads lead to Rome”, we still need someone to make us want to strive towards aiming for Rome in the first place. Yet where do we find the tightrope walkers willing to guide us on this journey?

Research on leadership provides some answers in this regard. Different leadership principles have abundantly emerged in the past century, mirroring trends in management theory as well as societal changes. In addition, most scholars agree that leadership is very much context dependent. Therefore, keeping the peculiarities of expert organisations in sight, translating solutions from other sectors into higher education might well prove to be ineffective or even dangerous. Yet, one emerging trend relevant to higher education learning and teaching are approaches in which the focus is shifted from planning and enacting change to a more dialogue-oriented approach, trying to coordinate internal dynamics and negotiating shared goals. In other words, leadership is not so much about defining a strategy, but about ensuring that a strategy (once set) is jointly implemented. One person alone will seldom be able to define what an institution needs to do – and how. Yet the beauty of an expert organisation arguably lies in having a great reservoir of knowledge and experience at its disposal. The tightrope walk of leadership thus lies in getting the experts to agree on a way forward, in grooming the institution’s change readiness, and in finding ways of sharing leadership among different actors.

Shared leadership seems to be a suitable way of dealing with the increasingly complex and dynamic environments in which higher education institutions operate. New technologies, demographic trends, climate change, legal changes and new education providers all challenge the status quo and force institutions to rethink their strategies and operations, sometimes even their institutional identities. Yet other than the traditional notion of “collegial decision making”, shared leadership is still about giving direction, rather than negotiating compromise.

We are often limited by the misconception of the solitary leader at the top of an organisation, whereas leadership, though not completely independent of hierarchy, should actually be understood in a much broader sense. Leaders are not only at the most senior level of an institution. Instead, they can emerge in middle management positions, on the level of units, departments, and in committees or project groups. They can lead projects, programmes, processes or discourse. In order to cope with all the challenges and related hardships, we need plenty of leaders who are familiar with concepts such as shared leadership.

Of course, such leaders do not fall from trees. Thereby, as with any craft and field of artistry, the daring endeavours of funambulists require much training and exercise; most likely in the range of what Malcolm Gladwell once called the “10,000-hour-rule” in his explorations of success. Yet, when it comes to leading and managing in higher education, the predominant notion still seems to be that leadership is very much the accidental by-product of a successful academic career. I am deeply convinced that leaders are rarely born – and that leadership skills are hardly ever acquired overnight. Leadership is hard work, and the knowledge and skills related to becoming an effective and well-accepted leader will need to be learned and honed, much like research techniques or didactics. Leadership trainings and projects such as LOTUS, though still too seldom found in higher education, offer learning opportunities and like-minded people to connect with. Yet the question to ask ourselves remains: do we actually want to lead and be led – or just have peoples’ names on supposed leaders’ doors?

This Expert Voice article is part of a series dedicated to leadership in teaching, a concept explored in the EUA-led project “Leadership and Organisation in Teaching and Learning at European Universities” (LOTUS).


Oliver Vettori
Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna)

Oliver Vettori is the Dean for Accreditation and Quality Management and the Director for Programme Management and Teaching and Learning at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Wien) in Austria. He is also a member of the EUA Institutional Evaluation Programme expert pool and is an advocate for European university collaboration on learning and teaching evolution. WU Wien is a project partner in the LOTUS project.

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