Leadership lessons from VCs

Many of us dream of going right to the top: leading our institutions. Each year we see hundreds of students graduate and their dreams are as varied as they are. The kind organisations they join and which some of them will lead fit a very wide spectrum.

For academics who stay in the world of research and teaching the spectrum is narrower though not as one dimensional as some might think. There is need in this world too for excellent leadership, vision and a little bit of magic.

Firstly in my view universities are not businesses and their stakeholders more varied than any business: students, staff, research councils, charities, companies who commission projects, and most importantly society at large. We may be able to measure citation rates of papers, or construct impact studies of some of our research, even look at average earnings of our graduates. But there is no real measure to what universities contribute to the discourse of a society.

Yet when a university Vice Chancellor (VCs) is appointed he/she has to answer not only to the metrics and un-measurables from above, but also the very business like numbers of operating costs, profit, surpluses, and so on.

More and more VCs are like business leaders because the pressures imposed by governments to make universities more financially self-sufficient, force universities to behave like businesses (and not universities).

Is that good or bad?

Hard to say. But certainly there are some very game individuals who are doing their best running their unis. A very interesting article in Times Higher Education gives some lessons from 5 VCs.

My favourite tips from these were:

  1. When implementing strategy: understand how the institution works: politics and psychology of the organisation
  2. When going from a place to a new one as VC/leader, learn about it. Talk to as many people from as wide a range as possible
  3. Put the right people in right place
  4. Think on how to communicate decisions as much as decisions themselves

Now all I have to do is get a position as a VC and I can start implementing these on the grand scale. Till then perhaps in my smaller world trying out these things may help develop the leader in me!


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