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Strong leadership – is it time for a new lexicon?

23 Aug 2019 | Cindy Vallance Cindy Vallance, Assistant Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery at Advance HE and convener of the Advance HE Connect leadership and management group provides her reflections from the July 2019 THE Leadership and Management World Summit in Hong Kong.

The opening remarks to the recent Hong Kong Leadership Summit highlighted the need in the university sector for strong, visionary, inspirational leadership. However, do the challenges we face today; at a time when we need to be thriving in chaos, necessitate a different kind of leadership, a different lexicon of leadership? The Cambridge dictionary definition of strong is ‘powerful; having or using great force or control.’ Is that textbook definition of strength, repeated regularly as a leadership descriptor in politics, in business and in higher education, really what will help us to solve the global challenges of the 21st century?

The Leadership Summit featured a number of themes but three that resonated for me were about our volatile future: 1) the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with Artificial Intelligence at the forefront of human / machine interactions; 2) the actions needed globally to respond proactively to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and 3) the geopolitical reality in which we face the erosion or even potential collapse of public trust in leadership.

Command and control leadership styles and traditional associations with strong leadership are no longer sufficient or effective in meeting today’s challenges (if they ever were). Every day in conversations, meetings, and in the design and delivery of leadership programmes I see the desire expressed for a different kind of leadership; descriptors recently shared by others include: reflective, thoughtful, inclusive, open-minded, sensitive consultative, visionary, imaginative, compassionate.

Fortunately, the Leadership Summit provided numerous examples of other ways of leading. One VC’s keynote highlighted the ideas of being visionary but down to earth; being confident but not afraid to not know; leading with authenticity, trust, transparency and an abiding sense of purpose. She asked the leaders in the room: when you lead, do you go to them, do people feel seen, respected and equal?

I was similarly struck by the introductory remarks of another keynote: a Rector who explained to the audience that while she normally took full advantage of all of the opportunities to engage and network with colleagues at conferences and events, this time she was unapologetically going to miss the formal dinner because she had promised to spend time with her teenage son who had accompanied her to Hong Kong and who was in the audience (headphones on; doing his best to ignore the affirmative smiles and nods in his direction). Demonstrating leadership means appreciating and acknowledging the whole person, someone who has a family, who has a life outside the workplace, someone who makes no apologies for this; this is a different kind of leadership.

A panel of senior leaders continued with themes that acknowledged other leadership qualities: reference was made to leading with purpose that everyone understands and contributes to; exercising moral muscle, critical thinking, equity, fairness and justice; demonstrating a values system and acknowledging that even in the corporate world you need to win support, you can’t simply tell others what to do.

When the panel was asked for their views on a Vice Chancellor’s top competencies, responses included:

  1. Foster trust and act with transparency
  2. Tolerate uncertainty
  3. Let go of preconceived ideas and plans
  4. Have ideas and evaluate them carefully
  5. Foster students
  6. Bring people together
  7. Listen to them
  8. Stay with it

Advance HE also had an active part in discussions about different kinds of leadership. Advance HE Chief Executive, Alison Johns provided a keynote on Good governance of HE – a shared challenge. Shared challenges require shared solutions and distributed models of leadership that do not rely on power in the hands of the few but that engage with the many.

Perhaps a fitting final and profound observation on leadership comes from recently deceased Nobel Prize winning writer, Toni Morrison who once stated: ...just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

And a final call to action and challenge for us all in higher education whenever and where ever we have the opportunity to ‘do’ leadership: when you find yourself about to use the phrase or to practice ‘strong’ leadership – find a more descriptive word and, with that that phrase, find a next step that empowers others.  


Cindy is Advance HE Assistant Director, Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery. She has worked for over thirty years in and with UK / international universities as well as the arts and commercial sectors. Cindy’s approach to leadership is practice-based bricolage – working with others to create new realities from diverse perspectives and experiences.  

Cindy leads the Advance HE Connect Leadership and Management Group - group for ‘anyone leading and managing who is interested in connecting and considering this topic area with fresh eyes’.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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