Authenticity, vulnerability and compassion in contemporary HE
Easing the tension between taking care of our teams’ wellbeing and meeting the increasing demands of a fast-paced and competitive sector calls for compassionate leadership. In HE’s prestige economy this presents a particular challenge for third space professionals. When research profiles trump educational leadership or professional service in power and esteem third space professionals must resolve to lead with love.
Working in HE was challenging before the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent economic and political tensions have only intensified the demands on the sector and those of us that work in HE. Leading a team of hard-working often depleted and so vulnerable colleagues can be isolating and emotionally demanding. Reminding ourselves of and remaining true to the purpose and values of HE, of the import role HE plays in social, cultural and political critique and, ultimately, progress for the common good, is comforting and gives strength to the isolated and equally depleted leader. Remaining true to the values of HE insists on values-driven leadership and applying the same critique to our practices, policies and processes as we expect our graduate citizens to apply to society.
Kindness and compassion
Kindness and compassion are important in values-driven leadership (Denney, 2020). Yet caring for the individuals that make up our teams, questioning the challenges they face and acting to improve their working situation isn’t easy in the volatile context we find ourselves in. We are politically and financially squeezed, the policy landscape can seem contradictory and media scrutiny of HE is irresponsible if not unkind. Meeting external stakeholder performance and productivity expectations whilst promoting and protecting a diverse, depleted team is fraught with emotional and intellectual contradictions and logistical tension.
Honest communication between individuals, teams and leaders is crucial: does everyone involved understand what we’re doing and why? What can be realistically achieved and when? When under duress it’s easy to misremember, misunderstand or just miss important communications. How might we ensure that having issued a message, written a strategy or constructed an operational plan, our mission and capacity is fully understood? To continually revisit, revise and remind ourselves and our teams of or mission means, as leaders, accepting a little dejavu in every meeting
Being open about the challenges we, as leaders, face in balancing what must vs what can be done speaks of authenticity and is, I think, at the heart of good leadership. It is in authenticity that we inspire the trust of our communities: both the teams we serve and the senates or councils we answered to.
Authentic leadership brings our whole selves into the professional frame. The murky mechanisms of unconscious bias, however, makes a mess of meritocracy in the academy: our personal characteristics and, for professional service staff, position in HE’s esteem economy, might temper our standing and interrupt our power to protect our teams and so potentially compromise our confidence. As a working class, disabled woman I have, at times, been tempted to adopt a more assertive leadership style, hide my walking aid and deny the difficulties these things present. This would be denying an epistemic privileged useful to my role: I am radically open to the many ways a diverse workforce might effectively serve a learning community. However, it is difficult to support a fragile and exhausted team if we are feeling a bit that way ourselves.
A question to consider then is how far can we, should we, lead with vulnerability? Is it possible to lead with vulnerability at the same time strength and dignity? Wiser scholars than I make the case for this, acknowledging it takes great courage in practice (Brene Brown is popular for good reason).
Kindness with compassion, honesty, trust and authenticity: this sounds like leading with love. Love is a verb, it is something that we do. It is defined by mutual learning, acceptance, personal respect and professional regard. Isn’t this the kind of relation we want to see in the work place?
The value of Advance HE’s work on global leadership is how it allows insight of the challenges facing colleagues across the sector and perhaps eases a sense of isolation or duress that one might feel when facing what must be common problems.
Professional Service leaders might potentially use and benefit from the Global Leadership Framework for HE : Having an evidence base of wisdom from which to draw strength and a foundation on which to build our own particular approach might provide us head space to reflect rather than ruminate, confidence to reconfigure the HE terrain rather than merely navigate it and, hopefully, save us time and energy to find the emotional reserves to lead with love.
References: Denney F. (2020). Compassion in Higher Education Leadership: Casualty or Companion During the Era of Coronavirus?. johepal. 1(2), 41-47. doi:10.29252/johepal.1.2.41
About the author: Dr Jenny Lawrence, Director of the Oxford Brookes Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development. Her research interests include the intersection of staff and student wellbeing and educational leadership, with specific focus on programme leadership.