Friday 10 July 2015

Conditioned Leaders?

I have been discussing leadership in universities with a few people recently, and a conversation with one earlier this week took my thinking a bit further.

He was lamenting the lack of academics on the senior leadership team of his Institution (of which he himself is a member). Some of his colleagues protested that, pointing out that a number of the other members of the team were also academics.

His response was that they weren't really, or at least did not behave like academics: they had 'gone over' as it were, to the managerial side.

So his proposal was to increase the number of academics, in the hope that they would argue the academic, as opposed to managerial, case (assuming there to be some distinction between the two) at the strategic level.

However, I was not convinced. Is there something about joining such a team, I wonder, that made 'going over' more likely? Because if so, then appointing more academics to the team would not achieve the result my academic friend wanted.

I have a few hypotheses I am tempted by, which might explain why that might be the case. 

One is extrapolated from the famous Stanford Prison experiment. Don't push the analogy too far (I am not suggesting that all senior leadership teams in academia are brutal to those over whom they exercise authority); but is there something about being put in the position of a senior manager that makes one think and behave more like a senior manager? 

A second hypothesis is that the type of academic who might be attracted (or even persuaded) to join the senior leadership time is the type of academic who is interested in managerial type thinking, and therefore is bound to go native once in that environment.

A third hypothesis is informed by Barry Oshry's excellent book, Seeing Systems, about which I have blogged before. That would suggest that the thinking and behaviour of those in senior leadership teams is a function of their role in the social system: they are, in Oshry's terms, 'Tops' and tend to think and behave as Tops always do.

All of which raise interesting questions, as they suggest that increasing the academic representation on the senior team might simply increase the number of 'academics behaving like managers' on the senior team; rather than increasing the number who see their role primarily as advocating the interests of academics against 'creeping managerialism.'

I am not discussing, here, whether that is a fair characterisation. My own view, for what it's worth is that a degree of centralisation and standardisation are important, to maintain health and safety, meet legal and quality requirements, and so on; beyond that I am a great believer in subsidiarity. 

But what interests me particularly is the view of many academics I speak to that those who lead their institution seem, to them, to have left behind their understanding of what it is really like to write bids, win grants, lead research groups, and recruit and educate students on a day to day basis;  I am not sure that is true, but I can see why it might seem like that, and would like to help rectify that. But I think it is more complex than increasing the number of academics on the senior team.

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