November 1, 2016, by Academic contributor

Lessons about leadership

Lessons about leadershipYou might expect business schools to know all there is to know about leadership. As the former dean of just such an institution, I would warn against delusions of omniscience. One of the best ways to progress is to make mistakes and learn from them, and in this regard, business schools are no different from any other organisation, when it comes to lessons about leadership.

During my time in charge of Nottingham University Business School, I had responsibility for around 2,000 students, 145 academics and 60 administrative staff in the UK. I also had oversight of another 3,200 students, 140 academics, and 50 administrators within the business schools at the University of Nottingham’s campuses in China and Malaysia. I held the post from 2010 to 2015.

Of course, anybody who works in a given business, industry or sector for a few years acquires a “feel” for what is done well and what is done less well. Yet the privilege of occupying the hot seat tends to provide additional insights into successes and shortcomings alike, as I soon found out.

This being the case, here are some leadership lessons that I learned during an enjoyable and illuminating half-decade. I know from attendance at conferences that they are familiar to Deans the world over, but I am sure they will also strike a chord with those in other senior management roles.

  1. Leadership is both liberating and daunting

Irrespective of the purported words of wisdom you may once have offered from the security of the sidelines, you are never truly ready for life as a captain-cum-referee. The view from the top rungs of the management ladder can be decidedly vertigo-inducing.

Although I like to think I achieved the transition with a semblance of composure, I was frequently paddling furiously beneath the surface. I found the realisation that I had unprecedented freedom to make decisions and choices simultaneously energising and intimidating.

  1. Not everyone can be satisfied all the time

Leaders have to balance a wealth of priorities and concerns. As a result, there is always a risk of upsetting people who believe their needs deserve to be higher up the pecking order.

I found myself quite unprepared for the number and range of stakeholders with whom I had to engage. Perhaps understandably, each had precious little notion of the others’ comparable determination to avail themselves of my supposed sagacity. I very quickly came to accept the impossibility of keeping everybody happy.

  1. Authority should not be confused with infallibility

A wealth of priorities and concerns demands a wealth of decisions. As I discovered, it is, therefore, essential to surround yourself with people whose opinions you value and respect, because their input will help you guard against too many errors.

There is nothing wrong with being authoritative, but it is dangerous to regard yourself as “bomb-proof”. The members of your close team should feel sufficiently self-confident and curious to provide you – and each other – with regular reality checks.

  1. Everyone should recognise and honour their responsibilities

Any organisation is likely to be home to people who think certain tasks are somehow beneath them. Such a stance could be a consequence of anything from crippling self-doubt to preposterous arrogance.

In universities, for example, it is not unusual to encounter academics who believe the excellence of their research should spare them the perceived chore of teaching. Perturbed to discover this mindset among a small minority of my own staff, I made clear that I felt quite the opposite to be the case. Regardless of where and why they occur, such attitudes can prove corrosive if not addressed.

  1. An effective workforce has no second-class citizens 

This point, like the observation above, underlines that there are two sorts of hierarchies: good and bad. Rank and wage are not the only measures of an employee’s contribution to overall effectiveness, and leaders would do well to remember as much.

Again, the unfortunate truth is that such negative and profoundly patronising outlooks lurk everywhere. I was greatly saddened when one or two of my own academics intimated that they saw administrative staff as second-class citizens. The situations that attitudes like these often lead to can be very hard to manage.

  1. The view from outside can be hugely beneficial

It is all too easy to forget when confronted by a difficulty that answers might be unearthed in seemingly unlikely places. In some ways, as I know both from my deanship and from my research in the field of innovation, this is the very essence of creative problem-solving.

Every one of us, even if we might not have realised it at the time, will have solved a problem by redefining it in broader terms and adapting a solution from elsewhere. This is why input from farther afield – not just from beyond your organisation but from beyond your industry or sector – can be extraordinarily enlightening.

  1. Incrementalism will get you only so far

In light of the incredible pace of change that characterises present-day life, we are all at the mercy of becoming “out of date”. Most of us eventually find ourselves at least slightly removed from the cutting edge of technology and development, even if we are still able to make occasional and sometimes highly worthwhile contributions to the cause.

As I learned, this is a lesson especially germane to universities, which face enormous pressure to maintain their real-world relevance. Yet leaders everywhere must deal with the very same challenge of setting the pace rather than simply endeavouring to keep up with it, which is why those genuinely committed to avoiding “dinosaur” status are increasingly acknowledging the merits of radical innovation.

Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

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