Academic leadership

Academic leadership or academic leader…. There are the two buzzwords that I have been hearing and reading about more often recently.  As Google N-Gram graph shows below, there is a growing trend in the use of ‘academic leadership’ and ‘academic leader’. Obviously, there is also an increasing trend for the use of ‘leadership’. According to Zenko, who researches foreign policy, “the call for leadership is typically one that is associated with a more confrontational and aggressive policy”. In this case, this raises the issue of whether the higher education sector is getting more aggressive due to its highly competitive nature.


Vitae, which is a non-profit researcher development organisation in the UK, describes itself as “‘the global leader’ in supporting the professional development of researchers, experienced in working with institutions as they strive for research excellence, innovation and impact”. Many organisations, including universities and Vitae, recommend that early career researchers should present themselves as ‘leaders’; however, ‘academic leadership’ and ‘academic leader’ in academia remain elusive concepts.

Academic leadership is often associated with formal leadership duties that are undertaken by senior academics. In the NOW corpus, for example, the top five adjective collocates of academic leadership are ‘senior’, ‘outstanding’, ‘distinguished’, ‘experienced’ and ‘accomplished’, which emphasise the state of being higher in status. Then, how can PhD students or early career researchers exercise leadership while we are at the bottom of the academic ladder? Over the winter break, I read about three information booklets or guidelines of leadership prepared by three different non-profit organisations (I count universities as non-profit organisations) in the UK for early career researchers. Surprisingly, advice given in these guidelines seems different. In particular, the priorities that researchers are advised to give or the top skills that the organisations recommend that researchers should have to develop their leadership are far from being the same. Based on the top 4000 most frequent words in each document, I used multidimensional scaling (an exploratory multivariate data analysis technique for visualising the level of similarity of the dataset) in R to explore similarity of these three guidelines (the wordcount of each guideline ranges from 19.000 to 22.000). As can be seen in the graph below, these documents, unexpectedly, do not seem to be very similar, although the document one and two show some similarity on one dimension.


A possible explanation for difference in these guidelines is that different leadership types can be valued by different organisations. I have read about the different leadership types, including intellectual leadership, innovative leadership and exemplary leadership, and I will try to summarize them below. Of course, for academic leadership, being an intellectual leader is crucial in planning our own research agenda and inspiring that of others. Having a PhD and writing research articles are one of the manifestations of intellectual leadership. Intellectual leadership also requires being clear-sighted about the direction our research field is taking.

Innovative leadership necessitates taking risks, implementing and evaluating new ideas in the organisation, and these ideas can be related to research, teaching, and public engagement. The disadvantage of innovative leadership is that people may not succeed in their endeavours each time they implement a creative idea. This semester, inspired by a very innovative lecturer at my university, I am exercising innovative leadership in that I am trying to use creative methods in my teaching, which will increase students’ engagement. As it is seen here, inspiration is key to developing leadership which would lead to a shared vision and encourage others to exercise leadership. This is relevant to another leadership style: exemplary leadership which entails dedication, collaborative ethos, empowerment and believing in capacity of people you are working with, and generosity with time. Exemplary leadership can be developed across different areas, including, academic service, research, teaching, and public engagement. In this sense, I have been lucky enough to have supervisors and get to know academics who serve as role models for me.


The final leadership style I will touch on this post is civic leadership which brings about having a positive ‘impact’ on and making a difference in the local community or society. This leadership includes public engagement, and it goes beyond that since a positive contribution to the society or community is required through public education, community service, and public scholarship. Actually, civic leadership is closely intertwined with intellectual leadership because it is expected that research studies make a change ‘beyond academia’.

There are many more leadership types than the abovementioned ones that can be embraced by academia. These leadership types are not mutually exclusive, and different universities may prioritise different leadership types, as my rough analysis suggests above. Therefore, PhD students and early career researchers need to develop their awareness of different leadership types rather than just receive a training on trait-based perspectives of leadership (leaders should be visionary, decisive, etc.). My action plan for academic leadership is that I will try to develop different leadership types through experimenting and learning from others so that I will be able to inspire others by showing exemplary leadership in the future.