Monday, 28 March 2016

A story about leadership

The other day I came across the text of a short story which I submitted to a 2004 competition run by what was then the Times Higher Education Supplement on the theme of leadership in higher education. My submission didn’t win, but reading it again it made me chuckle, and despite some obvious anachronisms that I haven’t changed it still seems to me to say something about leadership in higher education, even twelve years on. So I thought it would be nice to let it see the light of day. Apologies for the small font size which for some reason I can't change ....
The Vision Thing

Something strange happened yesterday. Not that that is unusual, so perhaps it can’t be strange. And after all, as I’ve only been in the job for two weeks it’s to be expected that everything will be strange, so strangeness is normal. Stop. I have to remember that I am not an academic any more and these kinds of semantic musings are no longer my concern. Anyway, yesterday’s strange thing was an article in the local newspaper about me: ‘New Broom for Greshingham University’.

It’s not that I am unused to seeing my name in the newspapers, and more prestigious titles than the Greshingham Echo I may say. A few years ago, when I chaired the government watchdog on vegetable pesticides I was often in the national press. (‘Boffin’s Hot Potato’ was my favourite headline). No, what was strange was to see myself described as a ‘new broom’. For if there is one thing that I have learned since I started as Vice-Chancellor it is that I spend all my time fulfilling the commitments and carrying out the policies of my predecessor.

It’s fortunate that I inherited his PA, Judy, otherwise I really wouldn’t have a clue what to do. On the other hand, I have to confess that I am rather scared of Judy. This morning was a case in point. I arrived later than I had intended, having drunk more then I should at a dull dinner last night. Judy didn’t actually tell me off for my tardiness, but I had the sense that she would have liked to, and that once I have been longer in post she will have no hesitations about doing so. She pointed out that in ten minutes time I was due to chair a meeting of the university advisory board (a collection of self-important local business people, as it turned out) and then ran through the rest of my engagements before dropping the bombshell. Tomorrow I was to have the first of a series of open meetings with the staff at which I would discuss my vision and mission for the University.

“It’s been in the diary for months,” she countered, seeing my dismay. “Sir David always held these open meetings at the start of the year. He went on a leadership development course that said it was a good way to motivate the staff and ensure their buy-in to the strategic level objectives of the University.”

Sir David was my predecessor. See what I mean about the new broom fantasy?

“What do you suggest I do?” I asked, cravenly rather than defiantly, for I have already learned that I am completely dependent upon Judy.

“Why don’t you use last year’s vision and mission?” she offered, and left me morosely sipping a glass of Alka-Seltzer.

It’s fair to say that I paid less attention than I ought to the advisory board meeting. What I wanted was advice on preparing my vision and mission, but that wasn’t on the agenda. Despite my readiness to be guided by Judy, something in me revolted at the idea of simply re-hashing the existing ones. Perhaps it was the new broom phrase. It was time to stamp my mark on Greshingham and tomorrow’s meeting would be an ideal place to start.

I told Judy my intention at lunchtime. I had the suspicion that she was doubtful, but this may just be my paranoia. In any case, I stood firm. I might not have been on a leadership course, but I’m certainly a leader – a natural leader, perhaps, so I don’t need to go on a course – and, equally naturally, I do have a strong vision of what the University should achieve. All that was needed was time to put pen to paper.

As luck would have it I had a couple of hours free that afternoon. According to the diary, I was due to meet the Head of Chemistry which Judy told me had been a regular fixture every term for the last four years because it was in a ‘turnaround’ situation. That meant, apparently, that it had scored poorly in the last RAE, been found wanting in its teaching quality and was so laggardly in meeting its access targets that my predecessor had singled it out for his special oversight. However, in an oversight of a different kind, it had gone unnoticed that, having failed to turnaround, the School had in fact been closed down and so the termly meeting was now redundant.

“As are the members of the School of Chemistry,” I quipped.

“They’ve been re-deployed, Vice-Chancellor,” she said stonily.

I don’t think I will try making jokes with Judy any more.

When I came to write down my vision I found, distressingly, that I don’t have one. I mean, I want us to do well, obviously. But this seems altogether too anaemic to warrant being called a vision. How about something more grandiose? To be a world-class university? That has a better ring, certainly. It’s difficult to take seriously, though. I haven’t met all my colleagues yet, but those I have seem to fall considerably short of world-class. Indeed, if we exclude the robotics team, it seems unlikely that the world would be perceptibly worse if Greshingham didn’t exist at all. Perhaps that is unfair to the Media Lab people, at least in their own estimation, although I freely concede that I am hazy about what goes on there. Attaching electrodes to journalists’ heads?

I realised that it was now half an hour since I had started, or rather failed to start. In desperation I turned to the pages of the THES to see how other universities position themselves. It seemed to depend on what kind of place they are. The newer universities stressed teaching (‘Luton – education that works’) whereas the older institutions put the accent on research (‘Southampton – at the cutting edge of innovation’). I certainly don’t want us to be thought of as an ex-poly, but then again we mustn’t come across as too ivory tower either. The best bet might be to emphasise teaching and research.

But were these things visions, anyhow? Would anyone imagine in their absence that the aim was education that didn’t work and research which didn’t bother with new discoveries? I thought of last week’s visit to the Philosophy Department and realised that some people might. Even so, I was sure that ‘Thames Valley – in the heart of Berkshire’ couldn’t be considered a vision so much as a statement of fact. Surely a vision had to be aspirational: ‘Thames Valley – in the heart of Wales’?

Perhaps I should start with the mission instead. But what was the difference between a vision and mission? I had to admit to myself that I had no idea. I could ask Judy, I supposed, but I wasn’t quite ready for that humiliation. Would the dictionary help? For each word there were various meanings, mostly irrelevant. Mission – ‘body sent by religious community to propagate its faith’, for example. On the other hand, was it so irrelevant? Perhaps this kind of outreach activity was exactly what was needed to deal with the access problem which was discussed at last week’s council meeting? Then again, was the university a religious community? Did it have a faith? And might it all smack of colonialism anyway (a bad thing)? As for vision – ‘thing or person seen a dream or trance’ didn’t really work. After all, I’d been sitting in a dream or trance for over an hour and hadn’t come up with anything.

On balance, the best definitions seemed to be ‘statesmanlike sagacity of planning’ for vision (I particularly liked the sound of that) and ‘task to be performed’ for mission. I felt I was getting somewhere at last. Still, it seemed like a thin line. If my vision was to be a world-class university, and despite my reservations this still appealed to me, then surely the mission was also to be a world-class university. The only difference so far as I could see (my vision, according to the first definition in the dictionary!) was that I had the vision and this then became other people’s mission. That seemed like a good idea, but would other people agree?

Irritatingly, just as I was making progress, the telephone rang. Judy told me that my daughter Simone was on the line and needed to talk to me urgently. Simone is a student, in her second year at one of the London colleges. I was worried that something was wrong but it soon emerged that all she wanted was to be picked up from the station that evening. Sometimes I think my family don’t realise how important I have become. I was about to tell her off for disturbing me at work with this triviality when it occurred to me that Simone is studying business management. Admittedly it was vaguely embarrassing to have to ask my own daughter about how to formulate the vision and mission of my university, but there’s no point in being too proud. And wasn’t this the sort of thing she would have learned about?

“Yeah, Dad,” she drawled contemptuously. “We did that in the first year.”

“So what should I say?” I asked, all pretence of superiority gone.

“Depends if you’re a lion, a wolf or a jackal,” she said. “Which are you?”

“Well, I’m not sure” I found myself giggling nervously. “What do you think?”

“Do you lead from the front, hunt on your own or stick with the pack?”

“I suppose a bit of all three,” I suggested.

“Hmm, a hybrid,” she said, disapprovingly. “Anyway, it doesn’t make any difference because whatever you are you have to look into your inner self and ask what you really want and then translate it into a story that can inspire people,” she said, before announcing that her train was entering a tunnel.

After the phone went dead, I tried to take her advice. I looked into my inner self. What was my real vision for the future? The only thing I could think of was getting a knighthood, like my predecessor. My mission? I suppose it boiled down to not making any truly awful mistakes in public. And they fitted together pretty well, because so long as I don’t completely screw up then I should finish with a knighthood. What was the other bit? Translate that into an inspirational story. It seemed good enough to me, but I couldn’t honestly think anyone else would be inspired by it. In fact, if I said this at tomorrow’s meeting then it might well count as making a truly awful mistake in public.

There was a knock on my door and Judy bustled in, reminding me that my next meeting was about to begin. There wasn’t any point in pretending any longer, but still I tried to save face.

“Judy,” I began, “I’ve decided that what we need is a period of continuity and stability. It’s called - um – the golden labrador approach to leadership. So I thought I’d stick for the time being with last year’s vision and mission. What were they again?”

“Greshingham aims to provide education that works and research at the cutting edge of innovation in the heart of the Midlands,” she intoned.

I’d been thinking along the right lines, obviously. Still I wasn’t willing to forget the new broom tag.

“Good,” I replied. “We’ll go with that, but add at the end ‘with world-class aspirations in selected areas’.”

I thought I had had the last word, but a moment later Judy returned and handed me a letter inviting me to attend a workshop entitled ‘Transforming Leaders in Higher Education’.

Was my life was about to change?


  1. Leadership skills are not born unto someone, they are definitely something that are learned and structured throughout a lifetime of learning. It sounds like you finally got the hang of it and I applaud your perseverance and willingness to take on what must have been an arduous task to have thrust upon you.

    Darryl Housand @ Haaker

    1. Hmmm. You do realise that this is a fictional story?