Academic leaders in Australia are usually recruited and promoted without a full assessment of their interpersonal skills and strategic and operational competence according to a paper in the NTEU’s latest Australian Universities’ Review.

And current university recruitment and promotion procedures have not yet found a way to adequately select for leadership experience and potential, say University of Queensland’s Andrew P Bradley, Tim Grice and Neil Paulsen in Promoting leadership in Australian universities.

Academics value and desire an “enabling form of leadership”, they say, but many believe they are constrained by overly bureaucratic administrators and managers “who lack the necessary interpersonal and strategic analysis skills to lead their academic colleagues”.

There is also “limited consensus” on what constitutes effective academic leadership.

The authors note there is evidence that “shared or distributed leadership” may best suit universities in which admin tasks are delegated to non-academic staff, while academic leaders focus on advancing academic values and goals.

This filters out bureaucratic demands so that academics “are able to pursue teaching and research, while also developing the requisite skills to enable strategic leadership and operational effectiveness”.

However, this model is not common in academic institutions, they say, with universities instead tending to adopt a “blended” view of university leadership within which it is difficult to distinguish between leadership and management roles.

“As a consequence academic leaders appear to be primarily focused on organisational management, as reinforced by hierarchical top-down management structures.”

Recent research suggests that “whether by choice or circumstance”, heads of department and other senior academic leaders tend to engage in institutional management roles with the result that they do not have the time, resources or authority to engage with and influence academic work.

The authors note that within Australia “distinctive and diverse promotion and performance management systems have developed” but that promotions are still typically decided by a combination of staff and/or central committees based on a written application, referee reports, and interviews.

In practice, they say, universities often have a strong bias towards leadership in discipline-specific research when making decisions about academic recruitment and promotion even though “leadership roles in universities require a broad range of knowledge and skills” around finance, academic policies, communication and emotional intelligence.

It seems clear, they write, that current university recruitment and promotion procedures have not yet found a way to adequately select for leadership experience and potential.

Current practice tends to prioritise and reward technical achievements within an individual’s discipline, based on their research and teaching outcomes, as a surrogate for leadership.

In the short term, they say, this can be ameliorated with on-the-job leadership training and mentoring while in the longer term universities need to develop a much stronger emphasis on leadership development.

Universities should have explicit processes to acknowledge and reward effective leaders through their recruitment and promotion procedures, without sacrificing the special qualities that differentiate academic environments from other sectors.

The desired outcome, they say, is to promote university leaders who are seen to be leading more than they manage, constructing supportive environments in which their autonomous staff produce desirable, high quality outcomes, and in which intellectual authority and collegiality are preserved.