Strategic leadership involves horizon scanning to understand the trends and forces that are shaping the external environment, developing a business model that will lead to future success, clarifying and communicating purpose, values, goals and priorities and crucially, coordinating and monitoring effective strategy implementation.
While most leaders in universities aspire to lead strategically, our experience of working with universities tell us this does not always happen. We believe effective strategic leadership can be identified through three signs.
The first sign is clarity, where there is a shared and adopted purpose among staff, students, and stakeholders.
In a strategically-led university, the strategic narrative is a shared narrative. People understand how their roles contribute to the broader strategy and feel empowered to make decisions.
When strategic leaders empower people they make clear the boundaries in which this empowerment will take place. For example, they define and communicate those areas where things need to be ‘tight’ (e.g. regulatory requirements) and where they can be ‘loose’ (e.g. providing space for innovation, risk-taking and experimentation).
In our view, clear priorities and KPIs (on a less is more basis) will result in better decisions being made and higher job satisfaction and discretionary effort.
The second sign is connectedness, where collaboration is encouraged and people are drawn to key interfaces to learn, adapt and innovate with others. Strategic leaders recognise these interfaces are where change happens, innovation is sparked, and true leadership is enacted.
In universities, this is where professional services and academics work together to solve complex adaptive challenges, and leaders of different schools, units, institutes, or departments come together to generate ideas and solutions, perhaps in the form of a new interdisciplinary programme that addresses a pressing societal issue.
Effective strategic leaders identify, develop and deploy ‘bridge-builders’ and ‘cultural brokers’ at key organisational interfaces to help foster alignment, collaboration and cooperation. This is the essential work of building a connected university.
The third sign is culture, where people are placed at the heart of thought and action and empowered to be curious, think boldly and take risks.
We believe that strategic leadership is fundamentally about learning, therefore a learning culture will be evident, where people are encouraged to pause, reflect, and adapt. The ability to diagnose the current culture, clarify the desired culture, and identify the key cultural shifts required to effectively deliver the strategy is a key act of strategic leadership.
Highly effective strategic leaders recognise that they have a key role and responsibility in modelling the behaviours and culture they would like to see take root in the wider university.
A thriving institution that is led strategically will also be inclusive and value difference. This is most obviously seen in leadership teams, where the need for diverse voices and psychological safety will be critical in addressing the complex problems that stand between an institution and its sustainable and successful future. Effective strategic leaders nurture and protect the space for difference to flourish.
Clarity, connectedness, and culture are three signs of effective strategic leadership. A shared and adopted purpose creates clarity, while collaboration at key interfaces fosters innovation and a positive organisational culture produces the behaviours that will allow people and organisation to adapt and thrive. Strategic leaders who bring clarity, build connectedness, and nurture a positive culture can help universities, and the communities they serve, thrive.