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Leading in troubled times – opinion

These are the most difficult times to be leading one of our Australian universities. Half of them have VCs who were appointed and commenced during times of turmoil. The other half had existing VCs already steering the ship when the storm broke. 

The university communities they lead are likely to be more stressed and culture-shocked than they have ever been.

Good leadership in these circumstances stands out, and sets cultures apart. But the principles of good leadership, and what builds a positive culture, are no different than in normal times. They are just more obvious and pronounced.

New leaders have a quite simple formula to follow. Decide on the purpose you serve, and create the vision for what your university is to become, from what it currently is. Develop a strategy for how the organisation can reach that vision. And communicate all of that clearly, passionately and authentically so that people share the purpose, vision and strategy. The art is to be acutely aware of the political landscape in doing so. Because of course it is not just a formula. It involves people. 

Having a vision and developing a strategy requires intellectual capacity, experience, knowledge and skills. They are used to analyse a situation and come up with answers. But if the answers are all yours, and not partly theirs, they won’t go anywhere. Gaining buy-in is critical. It is maximised by listening and being seen to listen. It needs to recognise and empathise with the context. This must precede establishing burning platforms. And must be followed by building coalitions that can paint pictures of the future that people feel they want to be a part of.  

The story of how Brigid Heywood chose to join UNE, from a bucket list holiday on Easter Island, featured in a recent HEDx podcast episode. How she engaged broad stakeholders to depict how Australia’s oldest regional university could become Future Fit was that formula applied to a nuanced setting. It showed leadership that respected and built upon context. Her focus now is building the collaborative culture that will allow her partnerships to thrive. 

When Helen Bartlett joined HEDx, she reflected on being an outsider appointed to lead Australia’s fastest growing university. She came with her own views, developed as a champion of regional universities. But she sought to understand the Sunshine Coast context. She applied the formula, as a sensitive leader that listens, in coining Rising with the Region. In doing so, she was paying respect to the cultural setting. She was helping those already there to paint a picture of a different future they would sign up to. 

Communicating a new direction through stories is important to taking people on journeys. Leaders recognise that in all sectors. And if we want people to own them, these are better told as stories about others, than about ourselves. When Pascale Quester joined HEDx, she talked about Swinburne taking a path less travelled. In doing so, she celebrates her university’s journey to date by making Horizon 2025 the next chapter, in an ongoing story. She does this rather than starting a new book pretending the past never happened. In this way, she has so much more chance of encouraging staff to sign up to the goal of reaching for four moonshots. She is now looking to build the culture that makes this possible.

Ultimately, leadership in universities is significantly about building trust. It is important when times are good, and is vital when times are tough. I recall coming to Queensland and leading a program of faculty change. Arriving full of great ideas, from distant places, and imposing them on a culture that wasn’t ready for them was a disaster at the start. I got plenty of feedback from Queenslanders. What I learned, pretty quickly, is that even the most catastrophic of situations can be rescued. 

When things go wrong, I learnt it required humility, admitting mistakes, and looking for new ways to engage hearts and minds, to work it out better together. It also meant being open to using help from others that had been there before. It feels like closing a circle to now work with a culture expert, who has assisted banks in response to a Royal Commission, and tech companies creating cultures of innovation, as we apply our combined experience to universities through HEDx advisory services.

We can all learn how to be better leaders. Maybe we learn most when we respond, when things aren’t working out, and the going gets tough.

In my experience, people will forgive almost anything, other than failures of integrity, particularly if we admit we got things wrong soon enough. This means we need to listen to feedback, and be self-aware.

When Giselle Byrnes joined HEDx from Massey, she made calls for compassionate leadership. Marcia Devlin made a similar call for this in her Higher Education blog.

I am sure we need leaders to lead with compassion. And we should show compassion to those leading us in these most difficult of times. They should be supported to hold up their hands and admit mistakes made along the way. We should judge them not on whether they make mistakes. We all do. It is how they listen, learn, and respond that gains long-term trust. That is what good leadership and culture look like in universities.

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

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