Leadership in Higher Education: Special guest speaker addresses students at MA ELiP course conference

leadership in higher education

President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, was the surprise guest speaker at the latest course conference for the cohort of students (all educational professionals) on the Part-time MA Educational Leadership in Practice programme (ELiP). 

Speaking on a video call from Manchester, Dame Nancy covered her own substantial personal and professional leadership experiences from her perspective as a senior leader in higher education. In addition to her initial comments, she also made time to take questions from the group. The session was introduced by Dr Paul Armstrong, MA ELiP Programme Director, and Dr Stephen Rayner, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of The Manchester Institute of Education.

In welcoming Dame Nancy, the team highlighted her substantial 14 years (of the University’s total 200-year history) as Vice-Chancellor of the University. She will step down from the role later this year. 

Dame Nancy shared her thoughts on leadership in general that could apply to many kinds of organisations and then spoke about what might be different about leadership in higher education.

She draws on her experience across a number of leadership (non-executive) roles. She sits on the boards or councils of several organisations and notes that possibly the most educational experience for her was the nine years she spent as a non-executive director of Astra Zeneca, a commercial organisation. 

Preparing to lead

“The first thing to say is that I never planned to be a Vice-Chancellor (VC), even up until the day I actually applied. I fell into this role, when two universities merged in 2004 and we got a new VC - he asked me to be the VP for research for the University. Reluctantly, I accepted and then I became deputy VC, then I was interim or acting VC for a while and then in 2010, I was persuaded to apply to become the VC.”

“It’s fair to say that most of what I have learned about leadership I have learned along the way, with a few programmes that I have studied on. There are lots of books and opinions on leadership. Some of the comments you will hear and read about will be very common and many will say the same… but other things will be different. There is a certain personal style to leadership.”

She explains that one of the reasons she was initially reluctant to apply for the VC role was because her predecessor was very experienced led from the front - different to her and she did not feel she could lead in the same way.

“I’m very much a team person but people persuaded me that you should not aspire to be what others are like – you have to be true to yourself - so I was persuaded to apply (as VC). These days most organisations in leadership terms value teamwork and distributed leadership, giving responsibility to those in other roles in the University. That’s certainly something that I have been involved in.”

Where to start the leadership journey?

Dame Nancy highlighted the importance of purpose, ambition and strategy. 

“In terms of leadership, you first have to think about the purpose of the organisation you are leading

What’s it for? For us – ‘Our Future’ is our strategy developed a few years ago and our core is people and values, and our mission are teaching, learning and students, research and its applications, and social responsibility. Then, once you have established your mission… you need to think of the direction and what’s right for your organisation; this may vary a lot depending on the scale and location of the organisation and the nature of what you want to do. And you also need to consider what level of ambition you are going to deliver for the organisation at various levels - for this year, next three, five or 10 years. I have been advised to look at five- and 10-year ambitions and work backwards.”

Dame Nancy believes that targets and ambitions should be tough enough at a stretch but not so far away from where you are now that people think it’s impossible to achieve. “It’s better to aim high and fail slightly than to fail badly. Each year, the University reports its performance to the board of governors. If it was always green (achieved) then it meant our aims were not ambitious enough. With the ambitions set, planning, delivery and execution follow with continual checking and benchmarking against other similar institutions and within numerous global league tables.” 

Setting your own personal leadership style

Dame Nancy shared her thoughts on developing a leadership style and highlighted the importance of honesty and integrity, trust, empathy.

“Being yourself is important. You can learn from others and you can sometimes mimic them but if try to be something or someone you are not, it’s difficult and others will see it, and it’s hard to sustain. 

“The role of VC is the same as CEO and, in the end, if something goes really badly wrong, I am also the chief accountable officer. You have to trust the staff that report to you and give them the authority to make decisions. Sometimes, they may fail and initially this leads to a discussion… and eventually it can be particularly difficult.”

“In terms of empathy, I’ve also always tried where possible to put myself in other’s shoes – it is easy to forget what it’s like for others on the ground and facing the daily difficulties, facing students who have problems, facing financial challenges and it’s important to remember.”

On prioritisation, she said: “I learnt very quickly that you have to say no to a lot of things and you have to delegate to others. There’s a saying – ‘delegate – ditch it - or do it’. Don’t leave things for long (unless it’s long term) and I‘m a great believer in list writing.” 

Your team

One of the transitions Dame Nancy had to make was from being a member of the team to the leader of the team. “Choosing your team and role clarity is important. Encourage continuous learning – you never stop learning, even as a leader. You need to be aware of how the team are doing and encourage collaboration – it’s also good to have challenge in the team as it’s easy to get into group think. 

“Communications skills are important and it’s challenging with staff, students and social media. Resilience is essential as there will be hard times and you may feel alone, so having a small group to regularly confide in – people I work with… others in similar positions, a self-help group to share with. 

Her final comment on general leadership was about humility. “Some people don’t like to admit they are wrong and apologise but to me this is an important part of leadership. You will make mistakes but may only realise this with hindsight. One early piece of advice to me was that any success for the organisation is somebody else’s celebration; any major failure - even if you didn’t know about it - is your fault. That’s just the reality of being a leader.”

Leadership in higher education

According to Dame Nancy, quite a few things are different in HE but this varies enormously depending on the scale, nature, location and mission of the organisation. For example, for smaller institutions, a management style of leadership might be easier to adopt. 

“An important factor in universities is the number of different stakeholders, compared to other sectors. Universities have students, potential students, alumni (we have 550,000 alumni) other staff, academics and professional services, parents, and funders of universities – for us, this is the UK government, industry, many charities and donors.

“I think the most fundamental difference between a university and many other organisations - and certainly a university like Manchester and probably all the Russell Group institutions - is academic staff…”

Academics focus on their students and discipline, which means they are very committed to their work. This can also make implementing change challenging. There are differences in the staff within the disciplines as well but also common issues and concerns around workload, student recruitment and performance – these concerns may be expressed very differently. So, communication is even more important in a university than it might be in many organisations. 

Performance management brings its own challenges

“One of the things you have to do is manage performance and again I think that’s a bit different in a university. In a company, the rewards rare very often financial or promotion and that is much less common in a university.  Recognition is really important - rewards for success for individuals and teams and we do awards every year – for teachers, researchers, students of the year, volunteers and making a difference awards. They are greatly valued and people can bring their families to see what they have achieved – this is often more important than a financial reward. But of course, you also have to manage performance which isn’t where you want it to be and in most cases this is managing performance upwards. 

“Every year, I meet new staff - academic and professional services staff  - and most have come from another university and I ask them to compare experiences – they may say this is much better here or it was better at my previous organisation and you can learn from that. A lot of the professional services staff come from different sectors – finance, insurance or manufacturing – and they are very interesting; almost all say they love the university and are fascinated with the different parts to it with amazing students, staff, museum and art gallery, but one of the things that frustrates them is delivering change. So, that is one of the big challenges.”

Dame Nancy went on to share examples of what’s been difficult for her and what’s been ‘fantastic’. 

“The most difficult day of my career was the day we had to close the university down during Covid. We realised everything had to close - library, laboratories, everything. Yet, we had thousands of students in our residences who had nowhere to go and we had to look after them. And that was a very, very difficult time... but Covid made us realise we could act and deliver very quickly.”

“Another difficulty was last year’s cyberattack; it was very significant but fantastic teams pulled together and we brought in security measures we could never have done normally and we learnt a huge amount from it.”

More positively, she highlighted the importance of celebrations and social events - with a team or more widely. “To me, the best part of the university is graduation ceremonies, where we celebrate with students, parents and teachers on their great achievements and everyone is happy. And of course this year, we have an awful lot of celebrations because it’s our 200th anniversary. In January, we had an amazing lighting up event where the university was lit up in purple and simultaneously our centres in Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai also celebrated with a lighting up event. This week have started our Talk 200 series and I would urge you to listen to them…the first presenter was Professor Sir Chris Whitty – UK government Chief Medical Officer - well known from his daily TV appearances next to the Prime Minister during Covid – it’s a fantastic presentation.” 

Dame Nancy concluded: “We will have all sorts of celebratory events going on through the year including at the of July when I will be handing over to my successor which will be another interesting challenge. I will certainly not be fully retiring and I will still be busy.”

In a very interactive Q&A session, Dame Nancy answered a wide range of questions from the group including – when to leave teaching and move into administration; how are leaders held accountable externally; how to maintain a work-life balance; how to cope with the mistakes of others; the reliance on data; how the university connects with alumni around the world; and sustainability and the future of online learning.

The final questions were on a more personal note.


What valuable insights or lessons do you wish had gained earlier in your journey?

“You can’t worry about everything and some things will just happen. I would tell my younger self to be a bit bolder. You have to recognise that, however much you try to communicate, there are some people who don’t want to hear it and so don’t listen, and you just have to accept this sometimes.

This was a difficult journey for me.


What are the most fulfilling accomplishments during your term?

“It’s difficult to say but will pick two or three. Transformation of the campus – with more green spaces and interaction with our neighbours; you should come and visit – with our museum and art gallery. Recognition as number 1 in the world for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals was a really, really important one and was transformational for me. One we have only just begun - Innovation District Manchester – the transformation of the old UMIST site to a new innovation district; the plan is a GBP1.7bn development and will potentially create 10,000 jobs. This is quite a big thing and I will look back on this and watch.”