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Are these times for leading with compassion? opinion

The public discourse around leadership, empathy and communication style has elevated in recent weeks in political and corporate contexts. 

Empathy trainers must be having a field day.

We are witnessing restated calls for how to be, how to lead and how to communicate. The levels of pressure, and lack of certainty in all of our lives, are changing the conversation about culture and leadership style.  

We have seen pent-up anger with how people are treated on a range of issues surface with suitably loud voices. The message that black lives matter is global and continues. The outcry against sexual harassment, directed to the highest of places in Australia, is that enough is enough.

Responses are being measured not only by what is said, but by how we feel about the way we are listened to, or not, and spoken with, or at, and when. Even global sporting businesses are pulling back from major business plays, following backlashes from fans that leaders have been not consulted with and are now half-heartedly apologising to.

University culture, and communication by leaders, has not had this much attention for some time either. Interaction between teachers and students became strained by the rush to remote learning. Delays to full campus returns is leading students, supported by governments, to express dissatisfaction with their experience, concern where fees go, and whether we care enough about domestic students. Interactions between academic and professional staff are being challenged by fallouts from organisational changes and staffing reductions. 

Interaction among academics is undermined by the loss of the shared space serendipity that campuses were designed for. How do we reconcile the concept of a community of scholars in a world partly working from home?  And if whole days of Zoom meetings with students, partners and colleagues were not enough, does anyone believe an online conference, in the middle of the night, will replace the synergy and inspiration traditionally initiated at events around the world?

In these circumstances, what are our messages about rebuilding communities, other than telling staff to come back to campus?

In the week after Melbourne and UniSA unveiled precincts for industry engagement, what happened to our other plans for making our campuses porous and open to collaborators? The renewed push for industry engagement and commercialisation, in cities and regions, needs interactions that combine physical and virtual environments in ways that respond to how businesses and universities now need each other. We build more buildings, but are we building cultures of collaboration that support this?

These are times that call for new approaches to engagement, communication, leadership and relationships. And these are times that call for compassionate, and yes empathetic, leadership from our leaders.

In this context, how are university leaders leading? The VC town halls by Zoom continue apace, as do chatty and newsy all staff emails. These sometimes tell people how busy leaders are. And remind staff, absent from campus, that they have matters to attend to. But are we talking and writing about and for them, or about and for us?

The planned politicians training was for empathy. The lesson from recent episodes is that this is not about saying you care, only to snap and bite at the first question. And regretting that others feel bullied by our language, behaviour, and forcefulness, without accepting any role in those feelings, is not being empathetic.  

Authenticity is seen in the actions we take, not in our smooth, scripted communications when the pressure is off. What defines culture are the leadership symbols we display, when the going gets tough. With culture, it really is a case of once bitten twice shy.

It is easy to see a dichotomy at the moment between extremes. The empathetic and authentic leaders give voice to stakeholders, listen, and take decisions with other people’s interests in mind. They contrast with other leaders, giving instructions under pressure while apparently not listening.

Do as I say, not as I do, never did work well. It doesn’t right now.

In a recent episode of HEDx, Professor Giselle Byrnes, the Provost of Massey University in New Zealand, described these as being times when our universities need compassionate leadership. I am sure she is right. Our politicians might not be alone in having much to learn about leadership and culture from across the Tasman. 

We have often selected our Vice Chancellors, and other leaders, for their academic, management and leadership pedigree. How a VC is selected now might need a different focus. Do we know how to look for a leader whose values fit what we are, and want to become, at times when our culture and staff are in a state of unprecedented fragility?

Mark Scott’s appointment at Sydney seems well suited to the needs of digital disruption, and fractured relationships with a government reducing funding. He has been there, done both. But as over half of Australia’s VCs commenced in the last 15 months, or will in the next six, how many chancellors, search consultants and selection processes are finding empathetic leaders whose values, styles and behaviours match the mood, feelings, culture and needs of a bruised, stretched and uncertain workforce? Are we hiring on IQ or EQ? 

My sense is that now is a time when we need leaders to galvanise, unite, give purpose to, and inspire communities of scholars, students and partners. They need to use a burning platform as an opportunity to lead people to transform, differentiate, renew and succeed, together. Finding such a leader will be the most important step that any university will take. 

The story of how the University of New England enticed Brigid Heywood to give up on her holiday on Easter Island in 2019 to now have launched a new strategy for her university to be future-fit for the next 10 years, has all the hallmarks of a search process based on culture and empathy.  She tells her story in last week’s HEDx podcast.

Martin Betts is Emeritus Professor at Griffith University and founder of HEDx.

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