The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world
How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?
As many as you like, but they will do everything they can to resist the change.
Many academics I talk to are “suspicious” of the whole concept of leadership.
While I am always amazed by such naivety, my amazement eventually gives way to pity – pity that many of my colleagues have never experienced good leadership (or at least recognised it when it happened). For leadership will have been happening around them, whether they realised it or not. They may even have made some acts of leadership themselves. Perhaps. (And I’m not even including “Thought Leadership” here).
There is a perception that some roles in a university are “leadership roles”: heads of institutes or departments or schools. Sometimes, though, these roles are filled by people who consider their main task in such a role to be a “buffer”. They see their job to be a way to protect the staff within the unit from changes implemented from above.
Protectionism can certainly have its place. If this was what was required, and was done effectively, then this would have been a good example of leadership. However, good leadership is sometimes about good followership too. The trick is knowing when to lead and when to follow. In universities, we have quite a trend in “leadership training” but I’ve never seen any “followership training”.
At a public lecture in Edinburgh a few years ago, astronaut Piers Sellers was asked what kinds of qualities he would look for if he had to choose someone from the audience to go with him to the International Space Station. He replied that the key quality was, “Someone who knows when to lead and when to follow, and can do both.” The fact that he was highlighting this as a special quality probably emphasises how rare it is to find people who can do this. And there is certainly no reason to suspect that academics would be any better at it than any other profession, while I’ve seen plenty of evidence to suggest we’d be worse.
The lack of followership skills in academia is exemplified by a very common phenomenon – the “won’t lead, won’t follow” mentality. I’m sure most academics will have colleagues who claim two incompatible positions: On the one hand they will happily tell you that, “Nobody wants to do the leadership roles (such as Heading a Department or Institute), and indeed we should probably be suspicious of anyone who wants to do it.” But on the other hand they will admit that: “In fact, if I were actually told to do something by someone in a leadership role, I would refuse to do it as a matter of principle”.
And we wonder why the political classes are so keen to change us from our dysfunctional ways!
The irony is that it is the complete lack of followership skills amongst staff that makes the leadership roles so difficult and unpopular. If we learned to be better followers, we might find we have better leaders.
So, roll on the Followership Training, and let’s make it compulsory to do one or the other (followership or leadership). In words usually attributed to Thomas Paine, let us all “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”