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Everyone in universities needs leadership skills

Image: Boris SV, via Getty Images

Institutions should enable all staff to take the initiative, say Nadia Soliman and Marcus Munafò

Academia has a tendency to conflate leadership and management. Senior managers seem to have all become senior leaders in recent years. 

Of course, seniority and authority bring an expectation of leadership. But siloing leadership in the upper echelons of an institution’s structure can make it seem the preserve of the few. 

Why does that matter? Because organisations can benefit from all their staff feeling empowered to lead. Conflating leadership with seniority acts against that.

Effective leadership is crucial in all sectors, but perhaps particularly so in modern academia. We need it to guide us through increasing complexity and challenges—responding to external scrutiny, enhancing the student experience, addressing diversity and inclusion, and ensuring financial stability amid global competition and funding cuts. 

But a 2022 report from the Higher Education Policy Institute described a “research leadership vacuum” in universities, and a Wellcome Trust survey in 2020 highlighted that it’s time for cultural change. What can fill that vacuum? And how can we all contribute?

In our view, leadership is best understood as a behaviour—or rather, a set of behaviours. It includes things like setting high-level strategy. But it also includes everyday things—a second-year PhD student noticing that a first-year PhD student is having a bad day and lending a listening ear. 

Behavioural framework

There are countless theories and definitions of leadership, but at its heart it can be thought of as taking the initiative in order to add value. That definition may not be complete, but it captures the idea that leadership happens every day.

Most of us are already showing this form of leadership without thinking of it in those terms. This is the problem with conflating seniority and leadership—it obscures the large and small ways in which people can and do take the initiative and add value. 

Recognising leadership as a behaviour empowers us to act, in turn placing the onus on institutions to create an environment where their staff feel safe and able to do so.

This is why we developed the Leadership Ethos—a behavioural framework emphasising that you do not need to be in a formal leadership position to exhibit leadership behaviours. It provides common language and understanding, sets expectations and empowers and supports the development of leadership skills in everyone in research at every career stage.

The ethos describes seven universal leadership behaviours, built around upholding institutional values and creating a positive and inclusive culture, and it brings these to life through a set of supporting indicators of effective leadership. 

With help from over 200 staff from across the University of Bristol, and support from Research England’s funding for enhancing research culture, the ethos has been developed to be relatable and reflect the academic community’s views and needs. 

Leading and following

Recognising that it is hard to know where to start, we created the Leadership Ethos Gauge. This can help people identify their strengths and opportunities for development across the seven leadership behaviours, offering a rich source of diverse perspectives, insights and experiences to guide self-reflection and where to focus attention. Although it is focused on individual development, teams can also use the tool.

Some may fear that the notion that everyone can be a leader will undermine those in formal leadership positions. But the skills and behaviours that define effective leadership are also essential to being an effective follower. 

The difference is that formal leaders hold authority. Their roles and responsibilities and the context in which they apply their leadership skills differ. Good followers participate in decision-making and goal-setting and allow formal leaders to delegate to them effectively and confidently.

Ultimately, giving universities the resilience and adaptability they need for future success will need effective leadership at all levels. Institutions can help leadership skills to spread and grow by offering development programmes for all, at all career stages, establishing recognition and rewards for those who show effective leadership, holding those whose behaviours fall short to account and fostering an environment that allows for failure. In this way, they can create a just culture where people can take risks without fear of repercussions.

Leadership is not about waiting until you get to the top. It’s about seizing the opportunity and acting decisively in the present to create a better future. The Leadership Ethos can help us all to do exactly that. 

Nadia Soliman is a research associate in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London. Marcus Munafò is a professor of biological psychology and associate pro vice-chancellor for research culture at the University of Bristol

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight