Honest Leadership

Emma Wilkins, Executive Search Consultant, Dixon Walter

When we think about what we want from higher education professionals, as the AUA has been doing, for me one of the most significant requirements is for strong and effective leadership. I feel that as a sector we have historically placed high value on subject knowledge, functional expertise and experience often at the expense of leadership, passion and the ability to nurture the abilities of others. Whilst recognising that these attributes don’t have to be mutually exclusive, it’s leadership that motivates, inspires loyalty, encourages newness and innovation, and will ultimately ensure that higher education is fit for future generations.

We currently find ourselves in strange times where university leaders are having to navigate their institutions through uncertainty and complexity.  However, turbulence and disruption are not new concepts for higher education; the sector has been subject to profound change over the last decade, arguably longer, causing institutions (or parts of them) to refocus, reshape and reform on a regular cycle.  Some have managed this well, others not so well.  Change is a constant so we have to be good at it (as recognised by the AUA Future HE Professionals work). However, maintaining business as usual, commitment and engagement whilst transitioning from A to B doesn’t happen by chance.  Strong leadership is called for. But what does this mean? We know what the textbooks say but quite often it can mean different things to different people.

It’s leadership that motivates, inspires loyalty, encourages newness and innovation, and will ultimately ensure that higher education is fit for future generations.  

For me, effective leadership is not that hard. In life, we value honesty, openness, a sense of purpose and knowing that we are cared for. This does not change when we come to work; the best leaders know that. For me, good leadership is intrinsic, is about being true to yourself and putting the needs of others and your organisation before your own. When I think about those people who have inspired me, who I have looked up to and made me want to give my best, they have all been passionate about what they do and genuinely authentic. They have brought their true selves to work and helped others to do the same. They have created a culture of openness and shown a genuine interest in the people around them and a desire to have them succeed. None of them have been perfect but they have known that; they recognised they didn’t know everything, owned their mistakes and apologised for them.

Don’t get me wrong I am still envious of those who are ridiculously articulate and poised no matter the situation, who never appear phased and who are immaculately groomed at all times but I follow those who speak truth to power and empower others to do the same.

So, when we think about the future and what we want from our professionals in higher education, let’s not forget the importance of leadership beyond the functional capability. To quote Grace Murray Hopper, ‘you manage things; you lead people’.

Dixon Walter is kindly sponsoring the AUA Autumn Conference 2020.

Dixon Walter is a Search and Selection firm devoted to the appointment of outstanding leaders. Driven by quality, results and attention to detail, they provide flexible, innovate and and bespoke services to support their senior client’s recruitment needs. You can find more information about the organisation on their website.

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