The University of Law to launch UK first human rights scholarship with the Clooney Foundation for Justice. Find out more
Conflict in Israel and Gaza – support for students. Find out more


How to be an effective leader in higher education

Effective leadership can mean the difference between a smoothly running business that exceeds targets or a company that struggles to retain staff and meet day-to-day challenges. One area that effective leadership is vital is within higher education. Our Programme and Student Lead in Education and Innovation, Daniel Philips share his expertise on how to be an effective leader in higher education.

By Cara Fielder. Published 15 March 2024.

Leadership is crucial to the success or failure of any organisation and higher education institutions are no different. They are complex entities that must balance the interests of students, staff, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders in an increasingly fast-paced and challenging environment. Above all, they depend on effective relationships to ensure the success of the organisation and its students – and that’s where leadership comes in.

Successful leadership can help foster trust, collaboration and creativity and lead to greater fulfilment for those around you. It can support your organisation, your colleagues and in higher education, your students, to achieve their goals and ultimately make a positive difference to the world.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is a framework of common behaviours based on what people do when they are at their best as leaders. They are to:

  • Model the Way: Leaders must demonstrate the values, standards and behaviours they expect of others. In other words, they shouldn’t ask someone to do something they’re not willing to do themselves.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision: Leaders must envisage what the future will look like and then inspire others to believe and share in the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.
  • Challenge the Process: Leaders must challenge the status quo by looking for ways to ‘innovate, grow and improve’, but this is achieved mostly through listening to others rather than telling.
  • Enable Others to Act: Leaders should inspire trust, encourage collaboration and foster a sense of personal power and ownership in those around them.
  • Encourage the Heart: Leaders must create a culture where achievements are recognised and celebrated. This helps develop a sense of collective identity and encourages others to persist in the face of challenges.

Between them, Kouzes and Posner have over 50 years of experience in higher education which includes the development of leadership programmes at universities across the globe. They have written many award-winning and critically acclaimed books on leadership. The five practices are based on extensive research over four decades, focused on ‘personal-best’ experiences of leadership from people in a wide range of organisations and at all levels.

The five practices also have similarities to other models of leadership, but as with any theory, we should approach it with a critical mind. To what extent is the underpinning research reliable and valid? To what extent is this model relevant to different contexts? We may well conclude that there is value in these ideas, but it’s important not to accept them unquestioningly.

Kouzes and Posner argue that leadership is not reserved for those at the top with the most impressive titles. In fact, leadership can be demonstrated at any level of an organisation, whether you have formal leadership or management responsibilities or not.  

For example, if you ‘model the way’ in how you do your job, you will have a positive influence on those around you. If you suggest improvements to your team’s practices, you will be ‘challenging the process’. And above all, leadership is no longer considered a trait you are born with, but a skill that everyone can develop.

As Kouzes and Posner argue, ‘success in leadership and success in life has been, is now, and will continue to be, a function of how well people work with one another’. So, whether it's ‘enabling others to act’ by supporting those around you, or ‘encouraging the heart’ by recognising and celebrating the successes of others, you will in some sense, be demonstrating the practices of exemplary leadership.

You can read more about the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership in Kouzes and Posner’s book, ‘Leadership in Higher Education’.

There are countless books, articles and resources on leadership, but Simon Sinek provides some compelling and thought-provoking videos that may provide a useful starting point.

But remember, as Kouzes and Posner argue, the most crucial step is to put what you’ve learnt about leadership into practice – and this is often the hardest part.


Learn more about leadership in higher education by attending our online event on Wednesday 1st May.