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Brave Leadership – Daring to Lead

15 Apr 2019 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on the increasingly important notion and practice of brave leadership and its very strong relevance to the current higher education sector.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

(Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1994)  

Brave leadership fundamentally involves being true to yourself and others at the same time as honestly and transparently engaging with the external environment. It is about bravely leading from the inside out, an authentic and emotionally attuned engagement with self, and courageously letting the outside in. And the two do not face each other as opposites or alternative approaches, they exist as truth-seeking, truth-telling bedfellows.  

When pressures grow, difficulties arise and multiple external drivers create complex challenges for organisations of external adaptation and internal integration, it is tempting for leaders to retreat to the safe-ground of instruction, direction and top-down strategy. This is nearly always the opposite of what the situation needs and is driven by a desire to avoid complexity rather than address it. Going into retreat is also not a brave thing to do.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb which says that ‘when the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills’. The first is a conservative, protectionist response. This is often matched in leaders by an emotional withdrawing, a distancing and a reluctance to disclose feelings and needs. The second is an expansive and courageous response that looks to harness the energy of change to stimulate creativity and work collaboratively with others. To enable this, emotional transparency in leadership is critical alongside a courageous listening culture that creates space for diverse views, strong feelings and conflict.    

Echoing the essence of this ancient proverb, in a piece for Forbes in April 2018 bestselling author, Margie Warrell, describes the same all-too-human response to fear and uncertainty in our contemporary context:

We live in anxious and uncertain times. The kind of times that drove our ancestors to pull up the drawbridge, hunker down and play it safe. Very safe.
Fear does that. It keeps people from taking the very actions that may ultimately help them be more successful in the longer term.
It's why, when people are looking skyward wondering when it will fall in, we need strong leaders to show true courage.

Margie Warrell

Warrell goes on to say that while it has many faces, “the heart of brave leadership is the willingness to take action amid uncertainty; to do what is right over what's expedient, and to risk failing and falling short in the process”. On the emotional inside this involves a high degree of psychological risk-taking and resilience. And “unless leaders are willing to lay their psychological safety (i.e. pride and power) on the line for the sake of those they serve, no amount of brilliance or showmanship will suffice” (Warrell).

In a fascinating piece of work around this same subject, researcher and author, Brené Brown, highlights the importance of embracing vulnerability as a source of power and choosing “courage over comfort in a culture defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty” (The Call to Courage). 

So, what are we afraid of? What are we retreating from? As far back as 2013, Michael Barber (now Chair of the Office for Students) and colleagues at the Institute for Public Policy Research wrote that “the solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them”  (text from the Foreword to An Avalanche is Coming written by Lawrence Summers, President Emeritus, Harvard University). This was a reflection on the idea of disruptive innovation and particularly the forces of technology and globalisation. And whilst the classical edifices have yet to crumble, the tensions in the higher education system are growing strong enough, now, for cracks to appear. 

In these circumstances, and under these pressures, leaders can retreat from showing, sharing and addressing a number of key truths that are critical to both connecting with the environment and simultaneously strengthening the emotional relationship with followers:

  • We retreat from showing ourselves and our feelings,
  • We retreat from showing the real issue or agenda,
  • We retreat from showing that we are open to other people’s views and feelings,
  • We retreat from showing that we do not know the answer,
  • We retreat from showing that healthy conflict is welcome,
  • We retreat from showing our vulnerability (for fear of failure, fallibility or shame),
  • And we retreat from finding direction through open collaboration and taking action.

If leaders go into retreat, they are fundamentally retreating from showing the truth to others.

In leadership there are three kinds of bravery. Bravery of the mind, bravery of the heart, and bravery of action. Relating this to the current context of higher education, characterised as it is by complexity, uncertainty and growing disillusionment and unrest, it takes bravery to lead. Bravery of the mind to penetrate the strategic background noise, to look to the horizon and to be decisive in the 'here and now'. Bravery of the heart to engage with people and create collective commitment around both comfortable and uncomfortable issues. And bravery of action as the structural tensions in the UK Higher Education system begin to break through and a radical new landscape emerges.

Currently, we are experiencing powerful agendas at work within and around higher education. Looking at the external context, the disruptors include rapid environmental/climate change, demographic shifts, global population growth, food scarcity, societal reforms, economic turbulence, international shifts in power and regional alignments, and fourth wave technologies including artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality. For universities, the impact of these disruptors will increasingly call for a "courage culture" in which brave work, tough conversations and whole hearts become key hallmarks of leadership (Brown, 2018 ). 

This is not to confuse brave leadership with the contested notion of the heroic leader, someone who swoops in whenever difficulties arise, disempowering others with their own authority. Indeed, it is the opposite where daring to lead may more likely require a courage culture or ‘fearless organisation’. Fearlessness here refers to envisioning a psychologically safe workplace which “is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obliged – to be candid” (Edmondson, 2019 ). One of the key characteristics of a high performing team is a culture of creative conflict based on trust and a sense of shared endeavour that appreciates diversity of perspective as a potent force for innovation:

When people speak up, ask questions, debate vigorously, and commit themselves to continuous learning and improvement, good things happen.

(Edmondson, 2019)

Brave leadership is not exclusive to level or seniority in organisations. It can be seen in senior leadership teams, those directing professional services, heads of schools and academic departments, and leaders of research, teaching and enterprise at every level. Sometimes it is the example of one brave individual that lights the courageous spark for the whole organisation. However, generally speaking, it is difficult to sustain brave leadership from below if there is no brave leadership above.

A combination of marketisation, competition, student expectations, funding and other regulatory changes have created intense pressures within the Higher Education system which look poised to challenge institutional configurations and even possibly in some cases sustainability. And the character of leadership itself and the relationship with 'followers', however they are construed, has also evolved significantly as the age of authority has given way to the age of trust and engagement. Whether quiet or loud, forceful or kind, close or remote, brave leadership will need to emerge to create a new kind of engagement in this ever more challenging 'here and now'. Brave leadership that creates fearless organisations will put the Higher Education sector in the best position possible to face these challenges head-on. We can no longer wait for change, we have to bravely create it!

So, be brave and of good courage. Lead from the inside out, let people see who you really are, what you really stand for and what you really feel (they will connect with you more strongly if you do), and bravely let the outside in by speaking the truth with your own voice. This is not a call to arms, this is a call to hearts!

Secure your place on Advance HE's Leadership Summit, Brave Leadership - Daring to Lead. The Leadership Summit has become a key event for leaders in Higher Education and this year the focus is on preparing for further turbulent times within the sector.

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