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Leadership development through collaborative learning: Aurora at UHI

29 Nov 2021 | Ann Tilbury Ann Tilbury, Aurora Institutional Champion at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), shares her implementation of Aurora and advocates integrating collaborative learning opportunities and small-scale research studies to support a critical approach to implementing leadership development programmes.

Beyond the individual leader discourse

Leadership and leadership development, so often remains stubbornly focused on the individual, who they are, what they learn, how they apply their leadership learning and what organisational position they hold or gain from their learning.  This reflects the pervasive view of leadership – individuals holding a position of organisational power heroically driving followers to deliver institutional goals.  Even as someone responsible for leadership development, I have to remind myself that the leaders I work with shouldn’t have all the answers and cannot solve institutional issues on their own.

Most of our successful experience of leading and getting things done in organisations is about working with others, listening, engaging and implementing gradual change. Advance HE’s Aurora Leadership Development Programme  helpfully avoids promoting leadership as a defined skillset, a particular model or promoting the adoption of a leadership tool set. Instead, the programme encourages participants to develop a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the concept of leadership through an exploration of their professional values, which is grounded in their professional practice and context. 

Collaborative leadership learning and a greater sense of belonging

The experiences of Aurora participants in 2018/19 and 2019/20, from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), explored through an evaluation and small-scale research study provides persuasive evidence of the relevance of leadership as a ‘relationship of influence’, illustrating the need to decouple leadership from positions of organisational seniority and to value the collaborative aspects of learning about leadership and developing leadership practice.

The positive impact of these collaborative leadership learning experiences has perhaps more acutely benefitted UHI participants, joining from a distributed, federated university of independent colleges, research institutes and central office, with a diverse geographical, organisational, professional and cultural landscape situated across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The research findings suggest that the collaborative leadership learning on Aurora increased participants’ understanding of the University as an integrated whole, created a 

sense of belonging beyond their immediate organisational contexts and provided a basis to critically reflect on leadership practice, recognition and reward.

Key insights for leadership development programmes

For those responsible for leadership development programmes, three key insights arise from our experiences at UHI:

1. Ground leadership development in participants’ current practice and context

A recurring theme from the research study was the emboldening effect of participants’ engagement in Aurora – they welcomed the programme's approach, the shared learning experience - as they attend the development days and reflected on their learning as a cohort; the new internal and external networks they established. These opportunities created a collaborative, reflective approach to leadership development which drew on their diverse disciplines and professional roles, therefore, supporting them to deepen their exploration of what leadership meant to each other and themselves. They enabled participants to develop a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the concept of leadership and increased confidence in their leadership practice, grounded in their professional values and context. Each Aurora participant shared their practice and context and helped the cohort as a whole to examine leadership through multiple lenses, providing a rich source of reflection.

2. Create collaborative learning opportunities to build beyond Aurora

Creating collaborative learning opportunities beyond Aurora supports the continuation of leadership development over time and supports an applied and reflective approach to professional development. The collaborative aspect of these development opportunities ensures a continued ‘coming together’ of UHI Aurorans, creating a shared sense of identity and learning journey. This collaborative learning included participation in the annual selection panel process; mentoring new programme participants; delivering presentations on their experiences engaging in action learning sets and in the survey, focus group discussions of the evaluation and research studies. These collaborations continued their leadership reflection and learning and further informed their leadership practice. Webinars, seminars and conference presentations by UHI Aurorans helped to ensure the emboldening effect for participants was shared with the wider university and supported colleagues to critically reflect on their leadership practice. 

3. Go beyond conventional approaches to evaluate the impact of Aurora

The research findings suggested the value of the intangible outcomes of Aurora.  As one participant described this aspect:

“I think there are huge amounts of professional capital and leadership capital, honestly, the organization would fall apart without it, but it isn't seen because it's the glue and it's doing its job. So, maybe there's a role for us in highlighting the glue, highlighting that there is this flow of capital going.”

Conventional approaches to evaluating leadership development programmes often miss the ‘invisible glue’ and in doing so underestimate the value and impact of programmes like Aurora. The initial investment in Aurora aimed to encourage more women to apply for senior positions as a mechanism to increase the gender diversity in senior positions within the University. There have been successes with Aurora participants progressing professionally within or beyond the University. But the University’s engagement in Aurora goes much further than these metrics. 

The 27 participants engaging in Aurora since 2018 have formed a growing community of UHI Aurorans whose influence ripples through the institution, promoting greater collaborative working across disciplines, professional roles and independent colleges; challenging accepted perspectives on leadership and championing evaluation approaches that redefine the nature of leadership, how it is valued and how it is rewarded. 

You can read more on this in Chapter 2: Implementing the Aurora leadership development programme in the University of the Highlands and Islands - insights and implications in Gender equality and representation within and beyond the University of the Highlands and Islands: A book in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021.


Ann Tilbury is a member of the University of the Highland and Island’s Learning and Teaching Academy (LTA). She leads the on a range of learning and teaching and educational leadership professional development. Her professional practice is anchored across the fields of academic development, organisational learning and development and leadership.


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