It was Richard Lewis’ last day at Goldsmiths on last Thursday. Richard has, for three years, been the project manager for the Transforming Musicology AHRC-funded project, a function which he has carried out in exemplary fashion. He has been efficient, productive, courteous, and has put me to shame in the way that he has managed his org-mode, to keep track of everything that he and others have done, promised to do, and in some cases refused to do. He has a new job in Web Development at the Royal Opera House, and while I still have the afterglow of his leaving drinks, I wish him well for the future, and regret that his position does not come with any greater benefit than early access to tickets (what? No comps? What on earth is the point?)

Last thursday was also the day of “module 1” of the Leading@Goldsmiths programme, on which I have actively chosen to enrol. The focus today was, crudely, on self-awareness: aspects from being conscious of and reflecting on our own institutional and personal purposes in life (why do we do the things we do?), through the qualities exhibited by “great leaders”, to the awareness required to coach other people to realise the actions that they must take to solve a problem of their own. There were a lot of interesting things; I really enjoyed the highly abbreviated “coaching” session, talking through a problem with a colleague, and (maybe) helping her to find a plausible path to a solution

And there was an incredibly difficult task, early in the morning, and before the customary third cup of coffee to deal with the sleep deprivation of the night before. Imagining one’s 80th birthday party, and the speech given by a friend just before the toast: what would you like to be in that speech?

I have been going through a fair amount of reflection about my work, and my place in my organization, for the last year or so. The combination of more responsibility, largely unwanted, and less autonomy, largely imposed, is unlikely to sit comfortably with anyone, let alone the fiercely independent academic. So, questions of the form “what am I doing this for?” and “does anyone even care?” are more than usually present in my mind, and when I get a chance to do some officially-sanctioned navel-gazing (or gazing at some other part of my anatomy), these are questions that will come up first and foremost.

Couple that with the first thought of the empty chair at the table, and there was a bit of a wobble. The second thoughts of course say that the first thoughts are reasonable but not directly relevant, and some time later after untangling the various meta-thoughts, it was obvious to me that there was something I didn’t want in that speech: something something so much potential something something not realised. I think that I want to achieve not having that in the speech by not having the kind of person who would think that that was a good thing to have in a speech giving the speech, rather than trying to realise some outsider’s view of my potential, but this definitely calls for more reflection. Positive ideas, though, included “he is helpful and honest” and “he hasn’t stabbed anyone in the back”, which you might think would be pretty low achievement levels but given the state of the UK at the moment...

We also spent some time considering ways of modelling interactions, both in general (where we were introduced to the transactional analysis model, which I’m sure we talked about at some point in the early days of Teclo) as well as in the specific case of coaching, where we have been given the “GROW” acronym. But perhaps the most controversial (and slightly less personal) work piece was a discussion of the traits of leaders and followers, which diverted slightly into a discussion of whether academic leadership, or leadership in an academic institution, is different from leadership elsewhere. And is it? This post isn’t going to get anywhere near the bottom of the issue; it’s more an attempt to crystallise some vague thoughts before the training day fades away entirely.

One effect that needs to be decoupled from others is the size of the institution. In the session, the leadership qualities (leaders “reveal their weaknesses”, “trust their instincts”, “posess tough empathy”, and “dare to be different”) were described as valid, but perhaps less appropriate to academia, or to universities. Is that right? On one level, the qualities are vague enough that more or less any behaviour fits at least one of them. On another, though, actually who really owns all four of them at once? I spoke in the session of my personal experience with Luke and Jane who I think both fit the mould; certainly I was clear that I was follower to their leadership, and I think they knew what they were doing. But in a small institution (and both Luke and Jane expressed their clear preferences for working in small companies) it is possible to effect change quickly; the idea behind trusting your instincts (implicitly, to make decisions without reference to everyone who might believe they deserve a say) is much stronger when you have tens of meaningful decisions to make every day, and the effect of those decisions is immediate, compared with the overwhelming sluggishness of an institution with highly bureaucratic processes to satisfy internal and external regulatory pressures. A leader can have an obvious, visible and direct effect in a small institution; the effect of leadership in a larger one is necessarily less direct.

Is there any other difference? There was a lot in the session which seemed to boil down to sublimation of human considerations to the overriding interests of the firm, or organization in the University context: in individual behaviour and in decision-making. The classic example is of the institution that must reduce headcount or otherwise find savings, and the choice is between letting go the single earner of a family or a person with no dependents, where the single earner is performing less well. For the good of the firm, we must let that family breadwinner go.

But wait. I accept that that’s a reductive scenario intended to make the dilemma stark, and to highlight the leadership quality of “tough empathy” as opposed to the milksops who would be soft and let the other person go, or worse, keep both of them on and watch the organization crumble. But “Any university is only as good as the academics and the staff”, says the VC of the first British University to top the pseudostatistical Times Higher World University Rankings; and the reputational hit of being ruthless and short-termist with hiring and firing could be detrimental in the longer term than the short-term benefit of firing the “correct” choice, even if you admit that there are objective measures of quality of work that unambiguously clarify which is the correct member of staff to fire.

Where there is a clear ownership structure to the organization (such as shareholders), or where the firing manager has a fiduciary duty, it’s perhaps reasonable for the manager to go with the tough empathy choice. The manager has to be a little worried about legal retribution, or their own organizational position, and what matters is not whether they have done the Right Thing but whether they can use the defense that reasonable people would have acted the same in their stead. In the case of a University, though, with no shareholders and a mission of “offering a transformative experience, generating knowledge and stimulating self-discovery through creative, radical and intellectually rigorous thinking and practice”, is it so obvious that we must fire the underperforming family breadwinner? Obviously, we can’t continually hire sub-par family breadwinners, but once they are on staff, do we not have some duty of care towards them in a similar way that we have a duty of care towards our students?

Back, in some way, towards academic leadership. It’s perhaps too easy to say that the academic career ladder has a fantastically bizarre set of rungs, where climbing one rung is a completely different challenge from climbing the next. Others have written about the transition from active researcher to pen-pusher principal investigator, and how it takes you from one world to a completely different world. But what next?

For the last 20 years or so, in the world of REF and the RAE that came before, the UK academic has been thoroughly incentivised to concentrate on producing a small number of highly-rated publications, to the exclusion of practically all else. There has been a transfer window created by the artificial construction of allowing institutions to submit publications to the REF of its cohort of staff members as of a particular date, whatever the place and environment in which those publications were actually written (and the work underlying them performed and funded). Institutions being what they are, game-playing ensued and those individuals with a plausible-looking publication record could use that as a strong bargaining chip to move institutions, essentially capturing all the investment value, but perhaps more perniciously on a systemic level also moving the institutional Overton window to research specialization as the epitome of University activity to the exclusion of all else, a position which would be unrecognizable to the inhabitants of the University of 80 years ago, let alone 800 years ago.

But if you do believe in the University as an institution with a holistic brief, to improve the way of life of its students and the wider community that it lives in, how do you view the capture of value by the research specialist, the academic leader with the group of enslaved post-docs, all aiming for a future that barely 10% of them will achieve? I exaggerate for effect, but that academic leader will avoid responsibilities, disclaim responsibility for teaching (not even “research-led” teaching is sufficiently exalted), fail to assimilate the ethos of the wider institution: and then take their group to the next University that needs the REF boost, leaving a hole in the institutional finances that needs to be filled. The Stern review’s recommendation that publications shouldn’t be transferrable any more will be an extremely radical shift in the academic job market; people will once again be hired for the job that they will do, rather than the job they have already done for someone else; that seems only equitable to me, and while I can understand the fear of the Early Career Researcher I believe that this change will benefit them, too.

There are of course other academic leaders. It’s possible that I am reacting too strongly to the phrase “academic leadership”, which I have come to associate with the psychopathic behaviour that goes with lying on grant proposals, salami-slicing research of dubious validity to inflate personal metrics, and preying on post-doctoral and student researchers’ naïveté. The Head of Department who quietly gets on with admissions work and shelters the staff from the whims of Senior Management; the PI who actively mentors their group members for them to find the things that they really want to do in life; the department administrator who works until the small hours to make sure that laboratory assistants have employment contracts by the time they start teaching: all of these exhibit hugely positive influence on their institutions and their communities. Where I have real difficulty with the idea of leadership as we were encouraged to think about it on Thursday is the idea that the organization is a thing that should be preserved above the people whom it serves – what good the survival of the institution if it endures at the cost of its own identity?

Well, that ended bleakly, and isn’t entirely coherent; think of this as a set of notes rather than a finished piece (well, it’s on a personal blog; what do you expect?). As a postscriptum: I do seem to have a bit more energy at the moment, as these 2000 words can attest. I also did some programming a couple of evenings ago: shame it was all in Javascript. Term begins began the day before yesterday on Monday! Onward!