Class Act: When is a leader not a leader?

What's it all about: People have very different ideas and methods of leadership. Do today's leaders actually have enough time to lead?
What's it all about: People have very different ideas and methods of leadership. Do today's leaders actually have enough time to lead?

In the past, I have had a range of different leadership positions (from running a national community support service to a running a school within a university) and I very quickly learned that management was much easier than leadership, but leadership is what really made a difference.

In my own practice, performing a balancing act between the two was not at all easy and there were times when I felt that I really had not achieved what I wanted to (however, I still maintain contact with many of the colleagues from that time so I guess not everyone hated me!).

In my research at the moment, I am exploring leadership (in my case leadership in early childhood) and it is interesting to me to tease out the different perspectives people have about their leadership roles, and their different understandings of what leadership is about.

As a staff member now in a university, I am experiencing leadership from the other side, and that certainly gives me an opportunity to think more about what I expect of leaders, and how leadership behaviours are experienced by those who are officially positioned as followers.

Then I can add to this personal mix the work I have been reading recently about the impact of neoliberalism on education, impacts I certainly experience daily in my work, many of which result in extreme feelings of frustration (for example the requirement that I nominate someone to cover my teaching while absent at a conference in a trimester when I do not teach).

What I have come to learn is that there is no ONE right way to be a leader, but that it is unfortunately all too common for leadership to be conflated with management. To me these are two different things.

I am sure that many of my academic colleagues can provide a more grounded theoretical analysis about this but to me, management is what is strongly encouraged and supported in our neoliberal climate. It includes all the structures and processes necessary to administer an academic business, including meeting the reporting requirements imposed by government and accrediting agencies.

No-one will deny that running the academic business effectively and within budget, and meeting the necessary government and accreditation requirements are important, but I note how increasingly onerous these compliance tasks have become.

In a university context where academics have traditionally seen themselves as independent thinkers capable of operating professionally and honestly, increasing surveillance is often perceived as bullying. Staff who believe they are being micro-managed and/or bullied are much more likely to engage in resistance behaviours; working to rule is one of the obvious options and given that the average academic works 13 extra hours a week, and the average professional staff works an unpaid six hours a week extra, the impact on the “business” of universities should staff do this could be catastrophic.

In contrast, leadership to me is about working with staff, creating a shared understanding of the work they are doing, and jointly creating and working towards a shared vision for their future and the future of the business.

Leadership is about relationships, identifying and supporting individual strengths and empowering staff to be engaged, to contribute and to excel.

Unfortunately, as reported in one study recently, leaders “often find that they are so busy complying with bureaucratic and reporting procedures … (and) dealing with complaints … that they have little time left to lead or to think and operate strategically”.

It might be interesting to ask your friends who they think are the key world, national and local leaders (past and present)? Do they come up with great managers or do they suggest great leaders? And of those people they identify, who were in formal leadership positions? Who makes the most difference in our world?

I suggest great leaders, and if that is the case, should we all aspire to support, encourage and empower those around us even when we are not in formal leadership positions? Do we allow the neoliberal world around us to crush our ability to engage, inspire and be human together?