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Preparing for the new academic year: stories, leadership and purpose

Preparing for the new academic year: stories, leadership and purpose



2020 has been different to what we all expected. We so often talk about and experience change in higher education – but this year? This year truly takes the biscuit for significant, game-changing transformation of how we live, work and connect.  


We might’ve experienced uncertainty, perhaps fear, or have been stimulated into action. But whilst on this journey, 2020 has also given us a rare opportunity. The opportunity to examine how and why we did the things the way we did before. And to choose now as a time to do something different, something better.  


In this twitter chat, we want to seek out the positive choices we can make, influence and support people – leaders and communities in the sector – to take as we design a new academic year. Asking questions like: 


What values and associated practices do we want to keep? And which ones should we question, in light of everything that’s happened this year?  


How do we support and challenge leaders to communicate and tell the stories that encourage positive change? And what are the stories that we as coaches need to be telling to help people adapt, physically, psychologically and emotionally? 


These questions, and this sense of meaning, is very real to us, my colleague Paul and me. Over the summer, we’ve been thinking hard about stories, leadership and purpose. We’ve come to realise that what we do is shaped far more by beliefs and values, particularly of the leaders we’re here to support, than by ‘doing a job to deliver a service’. 


We’ve been surprised and inspired by what we’ve seen happening in universities run almost entirely from people’s homes.  


From 9 different institutions, we invited managers at many different levels to draw maps of the landscapes they’re finding themselves in. Time and again, we found their imaginations to be limitless, as we listened to them explaining online to one another how it feels to be where they are: finding their way through as they see themselves walking through forests, embattled as they cross mountains, or stuck in the detail as they navigate the London Underground. It’s astounding just how curious and empathetic people are about one another’s values and practices – given the opportunity and the space. 


The openness and trust that result from experiences like these pave the way for high-quality debate and decision-making. This is how leaders are coming together effectively to design post-lockdown experiences for their students. It also points to how universities can reach out to share their wider sense of purpose with local and professional communities.  


There are also more troubling reports of unprofessional behaviour: of colleagues who let loose their frustrations on others via email tirades, or who refuse to collaborate to bring about commonly-desired changes. It takes resilience and collegial solidarity to tackle such behaviours. 


What we do now, matters. Thinking through how we can keep the best of connecting remotely and build on this to design a new academic year shaped by empathy, purpose and resolve, will be critical to making a more equal and sustainable higher education a reality. 


This chat will explore the following questions:

  1. How are people connecting their values with their practices right now?
  2. What are the values people are talking about most for 2020-21?
  3. How are you helping leaders to tell the future story of 2020-21?
  4. What sense do you have that universities are thinking differently about their purpose? 

Dr Paul Gentle

Academic Director

Paul is a leadership development expert with extensive experience in collaborative working cultures and team development, having worked with most of the UK’s institutions on these challenges. With 30 years’ experience working in higher education, Paul has held positions as Head of Department and Dean. Paul works in the UK and internationally, and is an advocate of sharing learning across the world to better inform strategic, values- based development, and to build a more ambitious, global, higher education system.


Louise Clifton

Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations

Over the last eight years Louise has built a career in marketing and communications within higher education. Specialising in professional development, Louise thrives on working with people to bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters. Louise cares about making a difference, and is always on the look for new and innovative ways of leading that can build better, more sustainable relationships for people at work.