Follow the leader?

Leadership in academia is uninspiring. Credit: Shutterstock/Olivier Le Moal

I very much hope that a meeting I attended last week at the University of Cambridge will prove to be a key moment, and a major catalyst, in accelerating change in academia. Delivering Equality: Women & Success was billed as a “summit of senior leaders progressing change in academia”, and, as Athene Donald discusses over at her blog, was timed to coincide with both the anniversary of the publication of The Meaning Of Success and International Women’s Day.

The meeting challenged stereotypes and (un)conscious bias, was often thought-provoking and provocative, and regularly confronted the received wisdom – in particular on the question of meritocracy. I learned a great deal both in the formal sessions and via conversations with the delegates over coffee/lunch. Nonetheless, I could have done with rather less of the vapid, corporate, faux-inspirational, TED-style delivery that was a feature of some sessions and is increasingly infesting and infecting academic meetings.

I must admit that I was rather surprised to have been invited to the summit in the first place. The delegate list read like a Who’s Who of UK Academia – Vice-Chancellors, PVCs, Deans, Directors, Chief Executives, Masters of Colleges, Heads of Department, Presidents… Not only am I not in any way involved with the upper echelons of ‘leadership’ at the University of Nottingham (or elsewhere), I have absolutely zero aspirations in that direction. (I think that my invitation to the summit might possibly have been related to this article on parenthood and academia in the Times Higher last year, to which I contributed some thoughts.)

Athene’s post on the background to the Delivering Equality meeting is important and thoroughly recommended. Here I want to focus not so much on the variety of issues that were discussed, but on the implicit – and often explicit – message throughout the day that change should be inspired by, and set in motion by, ‘leaders’: we rank-and-file academics should look to our leaders for inspiration. This is perhaps to be expected given that the summit was targeted at senior leaders, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the concept of leadership in academia. It’s yet another example of the corrosive influence of corporate thinking on our universities. Let me explain.

The ever-inspiring Mary Beard features in The Meaning Of Success. I love this line from her interview: “I’m also such an academic that if somebody says something I don’t agree with, my autopilot response is to answer back.” She also perceptively finds “that the people who are most talented in helping me rethink my ideas often don’t measure up to the more usual marks of success”. Indeed.

I didn’t become an academic in order to be led. Nor did I become an academic to lead others. I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom. And, as Prof. Beard puts it, to answer back. I don’t want to follow the leader(s), particularly not when, as described below, they so often demonstrate a remarkable paucity of original and creative thinking. Similarly, I expect PhD students and postdocs in the group to challenge me all the time – if they’re not doing this then I’m simply not doing my job right.

And it’s not just universities which are fixated with leadership. The research councils, including, in particular, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), are committed to “developing leaders”. As just one example, a very large amount of public funding was invested in their Leadership Fellowships programme over a number of years. (Disclaimer: I held one of these fellowships.)

The traditional role of academia – to speak truth to power – has been usurped, like so many aspects of the 21st-century university, by bland – though no less damaging for their blandness – corporate concepts such as brand management, ‘customer’ loyalty, and, of course, leadership. (The other aspect of corporate culture that has been imported, of course, is a rewards system which often has very little connection with performance, as discussed in an article in yesterday’s Observer: ‘Eye-watering’ salary rises for university chiefs cannot be justified, says report.)

Hand-in-hand with the concept of leadership comes a strong and corrosive focus on top-down management and centralisation: leaders have to be seen to be leading. This in turn leads to endless rounds of implementing university-wide strategic priorities, with the leaders scrabbling to assert their particular ‘vision’ for the institution. Academics at the chalkface are expected to fall in line and are not trusted to do their job without the benefit of ‘inspirational’ leadership.

The ubiquitous leadership meme would perhaps be a little less burdensome if academics were led on the basis of original and innovative strategies. But we’re not. Here’s a short, but wholly representative, excerpt from the strategy document of a leading Russell Group university. It doesn’t matter from which university’s blurb I’ve taken this, because it could have come from practically any of them:

“Our vision is to deliver research excellence across all academic disciplines…”

That’s not vision. That’s a total absence of vision. For all of the reasons discussed here, it’s a completely vacuous commitment. It’s worrying enough that this vision statement was written down in the first place; what makes it worse is that it was signed off by the leadership of the university in question. You can also be sure that the assessment of that research ‘excellence’ will be based on precisely the same tired chasing of metrics and league table rankings – no matter how flawed and volatile those tables might be – as every other university.



Lacking creativity.

Devoid of critical thinking.

I think an E grade would be a fair assessment of the majority of university strategy documents.

So what’s the alternative? Well, this blog post is already long enough as it is. In my next post I’ll grasp the nettle and suggest some alternatives to the ‘iconic, inspirational leader’ model. In the meantime, and with tongue placed rather firmly in cheek, I’ll leave you with Douglas Adams’ thoughts on governance and leadership

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

“To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who mustwant to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. His research interests lie in what has occasionally been described as “extreme nanotech” in that he works alongside a talented bunch of nanoscientists to prod, poke, push, pick, and pull individual atoms and molecules in order to explore forces and interactions down to the single chemical bond limit. Moriarty also has a keen and long-standing interest in science communication and public engagement. He is a member of the Sixty Symbols team that was awarded the Institute of Physics Kelvin prize in 2016 for “innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics”. While he doesn't share his infamous namesake's fascination with the binomial theorem, Moriarty enjoys exploring the maths-music-physics interface including, in particular, the deep and fundamental links that exist between quantum mechanics and heavy metal music (a theme discussed at length in his book, “When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11”). He blogs at

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