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"How can we lead in a different way?"

22 Jun 2020 | Advance HE At our inaugural online Leadership Summit 2020, our keynote Robin Ryde and the panel considered how leadership can adapt to the rapidly changing world we now live in

Advance HE CEO Alison Johns opened the Summit, referencing the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the impact of Covid as examples of why ‘Leading with Humanity’ is more important than ever in the current political climate.

She said: “The world in which we’re having to lead has been tilted on its axis.

“We’ve had the terrible global pandemic and more recently we’ve seen the horrific events in America, which has shone a new light and focus on racism.

“We have to lead with humanity and we have to lead with compassion in these difficult times.”

Times, they are a-changing

The keynote speech was given by author and leadership and organisation development (OD) expert, Robin Ryde, who began by acknowledging that major events are challenging because a massive amount of leadership is required to navigate through them effectively.

“Major events such as the 2008 financial crisis or the Covid-19 pandemic require an awful lot of leadership. How do we demonstrate humanity when managing through that?”

He explained that people, in general, dislike change and this is due to deep-seated psychological factors.

“Imagining how things can be different is very difficult. Business as usual gives people a sense of security and familiarity and change represents losing that.

“Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ that ‘losses always loom larger than gains’ in people’s minds. If losses matter more to people than potential gains, change becomes a challenge.”

He then explained the neuroscience behind this and referenced David Rock’s ‘SCARF’ model which explains why and when people begin to feel threatened.

SCARF model

“Status is fundamentally important to us, and this is being brought to light in a big way at the moment. For example, people may be thinking ‘how does being furloughed affect my position in the workplace?’. It creates a threat to their position at work.

“Certainty is also crucial. We have routines because the brain doesn’t like to have to rethink everything all the time. Change causes that certainty to be put in doubt.”

He also suggested that a loss of autonomy or control over our lives creates stress and that fairness is a ‘fundamental’ idea to our mental wellbeing.

Systemic change

Robin also spoke about the importance of an organisation’s systems in demonstrating humanity.

“What the organisation is, systemically, is far more important than the actions of an individual. You can have incredibly skilled, sensitive, compassionate, humane leaders but if the system isn’t the same then humanity will struggle to come through.

“This applies to all aspects of an organisation or HE institution, whether that is the promotions process, safeguarding processes or the boardroom.”

He did however say that leaders must be aware of the ‘amplification effect’ where what they do and say has a far greater reach than they may sometimes be aware of. 

He encouraged leaders to 'be aware of the shadow you cast, and seek out with those you trust their view of your shadow'. Now more than ever, humanity in leadership needs to be about authentic organisational wide collaboration and building collective commitment.

unique qualities of leadership

“Similarly to celebrities, things leaders say and do become amplified over the institution. Leaders can use this during times of change to amplify feelings such as reassurance, optimism and security.

“To create a greater environment or humanity, leaders must amplify potential gains rather than losses.”


Robin was speaking at our first ever online Leadership Summit on 10 June. He is an author, leadership and organisation development (OD) expert, and former Chief Executive of the UK National School of Government. 

Advance HE's next conference is the upcoming Teaching and Learning Conference on 7 July, which will be delivered on our brand new digital conference platform. Find out more and book your place today.


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