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The compassionate leader in the post-pandemic university

Until the recent global pandemic, university leaders had been engaging their institutions in developing strategic plans to define their niche and relevancy in a highly competitive higher education market. Different strategies were needed to find new sources of revenue to compensate for decreased government funding. Partnerships with business and industry, recruitment of new cohorts of international students, program rationalization and institutional reorganization were core to most solutions. Strategic goals of institutions were informed by market competitiveness, budgetary control, entrepreneurialism and excellence monitored through various performance metrics.

Nevertheless, a different list of concerns has emerged as a result of the pandemic’s leadership challenges, revealed through semi-structured conversations held by one of this article’s authors with 50 university leaders from Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Canada and the U.S. (Betts, 2022). The themes raised during these discussions effectively constitute a new agenda for university leaders that puts people, rather than economics, at the core.

Using a different lens to assess organizational well-being

In her conversation, Giselle Byrnes, provost of Massey University in New Zealand, has drawn awareness to the reality that university communities reluctantly returning to campus post-COVID lockdown have been bruised, strained and are still grieving from other recent changes, as well as pandemic-driven isolation and disruption to ways they work. Many institutions have been recovering from restructuring due to union negotiations, redundancy of faculty and staff, and cuts to programs, while also addressing the related negative impact on the organizational culture, evidenced by low staff morale and a general distrust of senior administration. The combined effects of these factors have left returning faculty and staff in culture shock and fearful of an uncertain future.

In fact, John Germov, former acting vice-chancellor at Australia’s Charles Sturt University, has called for university leaders to adopt a new set of lenses to focus on the overall health of their institution and mental health and well-being of the community. He suggests considering different measures and datasets to inform decisions and direction for change. The pandemic has created a burning platform for change. The opportunity for this to be an impetus for positive change is in the hands of leaders and how they respond to it. The leadership challenge resides in being able to galvanize people to get on board with the mindset and practices required to achieve the institutional vision and mission and create a culture where they feel they belong.

Senior leaders face several core challenges at any time, but even more acutely now, they need to ask: how do we harness the potential in faculty and staff to reimagine the university? How do we shift university culture and traditions that show up and negatively influence moving toward a desired vision for the future of the university? How do leaders cultivate a sense of stability and remain confident in the efficacy of what they know and the vision they have created, to be open-minded, and open-hearted enough to address the complexity and challenges of leading colleagues in a dynamic context?

We know from experience that organizational culture is affected by the values, words and behaviour of senior leaders. Culture is not fixed, rather it evolves, reflecting the norms and expectations that inform action and define how things are done. Carolyn Evans, president of Australia’s Griffith University, has referred to the values of social justice that are part of the culture at her institution as providing a sense of “true north” in the midst of difficult decision-making on organizational change, particularly during the pandemic.

Jane Den Hollander, a former vice-chancellor of three different Australian universities, has highlighted the important role of staff who hold the everyday operation of the university together during turmoil and change. She refers to them as the “heroes of the hour in 2020” and the “gold at the base of the pyramid” of a human foundation of the organization. It is through their extraordinary effort and talent that universities remained open and operational through the pandemic’s times of acute crisis. They provided the cultural and operational glue in the organization.

Dr. Byrnes has argued that principles of good leadership that build a positive culture are no different during the pandemic than in normal times, just more pronounced. Good leaders focus on being authentic in their words and actions, listening and responding to the context, and communicating a hopeful vision of the future that people feel they belong to.

A shift in what is needed for leadership

New approaches to university leadership and culture have strongly come to the fore in the last three years. What has shone as exemplars of leadership in that time may be different to what has led to success in the past. This is in response to the cultural challenges in the sector, which had been evolving and surfacing for years, being brought to a head under the pressure cooker of the pandemic.

The need for empathy and compassion has been thrown into much stronger focus. The need for improved ways of building engagement with staff and diversity in workforces has been amplified. And the skills of judging the mood of a staff group, and bonding with it to plot genuinely new paths to the future and lead people on journeys of change has never been more difficult or more important.

Such skills have not been at the heart of how university leaders have been selected, developed, rewarded or retained in the past. They are undoubtedly going to be to a greater extent in the future. Leading a large and diverse group of 5,000 staff and 50,000 students is never going to be easy for a leader who is not a people person. But universities have often grown, survived, and even thrived despite the presence or otherwise of these leadership qualities in their leaders. This has been banished by the issues of our time.

Some leaders are more transactional and results-oriented, adopting a utilitarian logic focused on business process, audits, and achievement of targets; while others are more charismatic, consultative and team-oriented, leading through a focused vision for the future, adopting a positive mindset and using motivational speeches to inspire confidence and commitment to become part of the change, and encouraging creativity and innovation in how to achieve the vison.

University leaders, previously hired for their academic pedigree and recognition as exemplary scholars, are now also being valued for their business acumen, entrepreneurial flair, and ease in engaging with government and community, but also for their emotional intelligence, charisma and ability to engender trust and commitment to a vision of a preferred future. Compassion, integrity and ethical behaviour are the hallmarks of new leaders and evidenced in their actions and decisions, particularly in disruptive, difficult times.

‘Hurry slowly’ while responding to the need for urgent action

Compassionate leaders are attuned to the importance of building relationships through careful listening, understanding, empathising and supporting people so they feel valued, respected and motivated to do their best work. Compassionate leaders draw upon practical wisdom to “hurry slowly” (Festina lente) while responding to the need for urgent action. They take time for critical reflection and deliberation to exercise prudent judgement and proceed with calm and thoughtful action. They are mindful of the need to move their organization forward in an efficient and productive manner, which may involve making tough decisions, but they do so with genuine concern and care for the wellbeing of people and the health of the organization. In the often-quoted words of management expert Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” so it is imperative to attend to the organizational culture and understand the levers for positive change.

But being a compassionate leader is not the only quality that is now required. We need leaders who can lead transformation, foster innovation, create new business models and build partnerships. And we need to recognize the emotional labour involved in university leadership in selecting, preparing and supporting our leaders, as well as how we value, judge and guide them to succeed. It all throws into focus the metrics, characteristics and desired capabilities used in the recruitment of university leaders to lead in this uncertain world.

When Mark Scott was appointed as vice-chancellor at the University of Sydney, it sent ripples of surprise and interest around the sector broadly, and in the corridors and halls of the university in particular. As a non-academic, he brought skills of transformation and government relations in great measure, and conventional academic pedigree in smaller measure. We might see very different skills, experiences and styles being needed by our university leaders of the future and in how they are recruited, appointed and measured. They might not all serve the 20 years that Michael Crow has given to Arizona State University, but whether they come from the academic pedigree of an executive provost of Columbia-like experience into the role, or not, they are likely to need a similar measure of high entrepreneurial flair matched to a commitment to the academic heartlands. They will need to be focused and skilled in how to engage people on radical journeys of change, to succeed in the changed future before us.

First published on University Affairs on 9th November 2022.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Lynn Bosetti is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia.