Leadership Transitions at the Top in Universities:

Navigating through smooth and rougher seas

Robin Middlehurst and Tom Kennie

In late May 2021, Routledge will publish our book, Leadership Transitions in Universities: Arriving, Surviving and Thriving at the Top.  This is a story of leadership journeys, with a particular focus on the many small or larger transitions that individuals have made along the way.  It is about the reality of leadership in universities, including the triumphs and tribulations experienced by leaders in recent times.  It is not about theoretical models of leadership or idealised myths of heroic leadership, although both appear in the book from time to time.

The genesis of our work began three decades ago when we were introduced to John Adair, then Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Surrey.  John had brought his model of Action-centred leadership and experience of leadership development in other sectors into the world of universities, first in seminars for Heads of academic departments and later for Vice-chancellors, Registrars and Secretaries.  We were involved in contributing to and evaluating these seminars.  Inspired by Adair’s leadership ideas, lecturers in Surrey’s engineering department then developed a comprehensive programme of leadership development for students in preparation for their industry placements.  This programme soon spread into other subject areas including Physics, Chemistry and Nursing.

We continued and adapted John Adair’s leadership development initiatives for higher education in the 1990s, subsequently making separate transitions into research on leadership and the practice of leadership in the professions.  We deepened our understanding and published our findings as we progressed on these journeys, both in the UK and overseas.  In 1999, we combined our experience and knowledge to co-design the first ‘Top Management Programme for Higher Education’ (TMP), partly based on the successful Cabinet Office TMP for senior civil servants and corporate and public sector leaders.  During thirteen years as co-directors of the TMP, we were privileged to meet, work with, and learn from more than 600 senior leaders in higher education.  Over time, many of these individuals have been selected and appointed as Heads of Universities (HoUs) or as leading professionals in their disciplines.  We have continued to work with these HoUs, their senior teams and governing bodies as they have transitioned into and continued with their varied leadership journeys.  International leadership development involving leaders from countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, Columbia, Egypt, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania, the UAE and the US among others has also added immense richness to our experience.  

After long and deeply fulfilling careers working in leadership development in higher education, we wanted to offer some insights to future leaders embarking on or engaged with their own leadership journeys.  Our book has three aims.  First, it is intended to debunk many of the myths and heroic expectations of leadership and leaders that swirl around our systems of higher education (and more broadly).  Second, it is designed to explore the leadership journeys and transition points experienced by those who choose to take on the role of Head of a University (HoU).  Few leaders have a smooth ride, many experience lows as well as highs, and some don’t complete their journey having been derailed along the way.  These experiences are at the heart of our story.    Also, in the eye of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, all leaders have faced a perfect storm; this too is explored in the book.   Arising from all these experiences, our third aim is to start a wider debate on how to support leaders through key transitions that they will encounter on their leadership journey.  In particular, we propose re-evaluating current approaches to search and selection of university leaders.  We believe a much more supportive – and more widely challenging model – of ‘Integrated Leadership Transitions’ is needed.

The book is built on three foundations: research on leadership (our own and others), insights from our practice of leadership development and consultancy (coaching individuals and running workshops for groups involved in leadership and governance) and most importantly, the experience of those directly involved in the task of leading universities.   There is new analysis of data from a sample of those who have been selected as HoUs in Australia and the UK in recent years, as well as numerous extracts from interviews with recently retired and current leaders of universities about their experiences of leadership and leadership transitions. 

We have structured the chapters as a leadership journey that begins when choosing to go for the top job, to arriving in role, to learning the ropes and surviving (or sadly de-railing) and ultimately to be thriving in the role of HoU.  We include a chapter on leading in a crisis, with the 2019-21 pandemic at the forefront of experience; we look to the future of individual leaders by focusing on the options open to them for ‘new beginnings;’ consider the future demands on university leaders and approach to their selection; and finally propose new ways of supporting leadership transitions both to avoid the costly impact of outright leadership failures and to nudge the odds towards higher levels of individual and collective performance.

It is a rare privilege to be able to witness at close quarters, and to support the work of leaders, their teams and governing bodies in higher education.  We wish to share this privilege more widely by bringing the individual and collective experiences we have curated to a wider audience.  We hope to inspire and inform new generations of leaders through the stories of the leadership journeys and transitions presented in our book.