Leadership Qualities of Successful Vice Chancellors

The word university is derived from a Latin word ‘universus’ meaning “whole, entire or the whole world.” So university is sort of a world of its own consisting of teachers, scholars, students and others from diverse cultures, races, regions and religious beliefs who interact and question freely to understand, create, and convey. Such an interaction is always aimed to gain & apply knowledge to expand personal growth & opportunity, advance social & community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve quality of life. This universe is unique in the sense that people here enjoys freedom to question, and to explore with intellectual curiosity and without any prejudice different frontiers of knowledge across socio-economic and other domains of human life. Autonomy to foster creativity for the greater good of all, is the guiding principle on which its governance structures are mainly based. Being the centres of wisdom, people belonging to these universes are presumed to be pure with intellectual curiosity, piety, justice and equity. Given the above stated beautiful and serene landscape, universities are expected to contribute to the universe existing beyond their boundaries in the following respects:

To develop human resources who are competent to manage socio-economic domains professionally and efficiently in their chosen fields of specialisation with a spirit of social justice.

To build character, enable learners to be ethical, rational, compassionate, caring with an urge to engage vigorously & fearlessly in the spirit of truth by providing a platform to debate with the purpose to learn and relearn, while at the same time prepare them for gainful employment.

To innovate new technologies, processes and plausible solutions to the socio-economic problems being faced at the local, national and global level respectively to advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve quality of life of people.

To develop students for leadership in public life by offering an environment which stimulates and nurture their attitudes & interests for assuming leadership roles in public life.

The achievement of these cherished goals requires existence of an enabling ecosystem, the most critical elements of which includes; autonomy to govern free from external interference; a well articulated ‘Institutional Vision’; and dynamic governance structures and systems, consistent with the ‘Institutional Vision and Mission’ statements. The leadership role of an ‘ Academic Leader’ is all the more important to navigate an university seamlessly to achieve excellence in its stated goals. The criticality of leadership in universities is more pervasive as it acts like a pivot around which rotates the entire edifice. As being cornerstone of an university on which learning communities function and grow, these can make or mar an university. A leader is the one who influences the behaviour of the people around him or her in a manner to inspire them to transcend their self interests and strive willingly and enthusiastically to achieve organisational goals. Therefore, the pertinent question is, “What leadership qualities a ‘Vice Chancellor’ who is mainly responsible to offer a leadership role, should possess to be able to carry everybody along to achieve a common goal? To be able to make everybody in the organisation to work tirelessly towards a common goal of achieving excellence, apart from being a noted academician with a strong administrative acumen, a vice chancellor needs to possess five leadership qualities like; Leadership in vision, Leadership in integrity, Leadership in excellence, Leadership in accountability and transparency, and Leadership in autonomy and teamwork.

Leadership in Vision/Mission: There is a common saying in management that “No road will lead you to the destination, if you don’t know where you are going”. This reflects the essence of having a clear vision to be achieved by a leader. A leader can meet the aspirations of the people only when he or she is a visionary. A visionary leader is one who is able to gauge the potential of his nation or institution and at the same time has a clear idea of how to get there. Therefore, to achieve excellence in whatever an university does, a vice chancellor needs to be a visionary with great passion i.e. has to have a very clear and realistic description of what an university would like to achieve in the future. He or she will be able to have well crafted vision for the university only when he “Thinks Globally and Acts Locally” which calls for having an exposure to the world class universities. Along with the plausible vision, vice chancellor needs to have a well articulated mission in mind, delineating the blueprint of the strategies and the processes necessary to achieve the milestones specified in the institutional vision. However, it will be highly critical for the vice chancellor to demonstrate energy and total commitment to the vision and mission continuously and visibly this calls for having a strong passion for the institutional vision. Equally important for the vice chancellor will be to take all the requisite steps to foster values throughout the university consistent with the vision and mission. It is an established fact that “visionary leadership is rare and certainly not something an average person can have it”(Suzanne Lucas). It is in view of this fact that it is being forcefully argued that while searching persons for vice chancellorship, it should be seen whether he or she is a ‘Visionary’.

Leadership in Accountability & Transparency: Successful leaders are anti status quo, thus creative and innovative. To achieve excellence, creative leaders take initiatives often involving calculated risks while considering the common good. But what makes them to inspire and make everybody to rally in support of new initiatives, the leader takes the responsibility and ownership for decisions, actions and results. Besides, they believe in greater transparency in whatever they do which leaves no room for people in the organisation to unnecessarily attach ulterior motives, rather helps to earn trust and confidence of everybody in the organisation. It is not only the vice chancellor taking responsibility for decisions but all in the university need to be made accountable for their expected roles. This calls for putting in place “Institutional Effectiveness Mechanism” which according to SACSCOC Resource Manual, is a systematic, explicit, and documented process of measuring performance against the mission in all aspects of an institution.” Equally important for the  leadership in accountability is to create an environment in the organisation where criticism is not muzzled on the pretext of being an unnecessary opposition rather takes it positively as an input to improve further. In the western universities, vice chancellors themselves constitute an “Adversarial Committees” with a mandate to periodically present their critique of the policies and programmes initiated to improve results. This helps on the one hand, to plug the gaps if any left while framing policies and programmes and on the other hand, results in greater synergy and cohesiveness in the organisation. 

Leadership in Excellence: It implies that an academic leader should strive for excellence in everything they do by continuously cultivating ‘Intellectual, Physical & Spiritual’ culture throughout the organisation. This is possible only when an academic leader places premium only on merit, performance and personal integrity rather than on personal relations. Vice chancellors with leadership in excellence, leaves no scope for favouritism, nepotism and personal likings and dislikings rather makes ‘Merit, Merit and Merit’ only his or her mantra in governance. Such a situation in an organisation makes everyone to believe that to earn positions/ promotions, one would need to invest their time and energies in achieving excellence in their respective domains rather in wasting time in cultivating relationships to seek favours, thus promotes healthy work culture. It is a well established fact, that such organisations fail to perform well where merit and personal integrity is being compromised to favour some sycophants who are mostly mediocre, lacking integrity and commitment to the institution thus eats the very vitals required for achieving excellence. This results into a culture of sycophancy rather  than gaining currency for performance, credibility and commitment to the cause of institutional growth and development. Weak leaders generally create coterie of ‘Yes Man’ who are ever ready to compromise regardless of the consequences on the institution.

Leadership in Teamwork: Steve Jobs has changed the whole complexion of human living with his invention but equally the credit goes to his team of highly motivated professionals who worked with zeal and zest to translate his dream into a reality. Teamwork is essential to achieve organisational goals as it motivates unity in the workplace, offers differing perspectives & feedback, offers greater learning opportunities and promotes workplace synergy. Therefore, to be successful, an academic leader has to work cooperatively as a member of a team and remains deeply committed to the overall team/institutional goals rather than own interests. The leaders who believes in teamwork, values & respects all campus constituents, celebrate diversity, and embrace shared governance by fostering inclusiveness in decision making. “You are not real leader unless people follow you voluntarily and for that to happen, your team members need to feel heard out and listened to you”(Suzanne Lucas). Teamwork also enables management to ‘Sell the Changes’ successfully throughout the organisation, thus enables to initiate radical changes in the system without any resistance. A leader who lacks team spirit has generally been found to have failed to enthuse others to work together to achieve milestones. Universities in India are autonomous bodies with inbuilt democratic governance structures. But unfortunately, over a period of time, there has been greater erosion in the autonomy of universities, more so in state universities, both within and from outside which has done a great damage to the culture of ‘Participative  Decision Making’ with a serious fallout on the institutional efficiency.

Leadership in Integrity: The pivot around which all the above stated core values of academic leadership rotates is the ‘Leadership in Honesty and Personal Integrity’ of a leader. It is an established fact that the nations become great not merely due to their natural resources endowments but through morality and inspired vision of their leaders which is more true about the academic institutions. Therefore, ultimately it is the “Honesty and Personal Integrity” of a vice chancellor which matters the most. Only the visionary leaders with impeccable track record of honesty and integrity, are able to influence the behaviour of the  people around him to strive willingly and enthusiastically to achieve organisational goals. To be honest is important but more important is to appear to be honest as we all know that actions speak louder than words. Thus to galvanise everybody in the organisation, an academic leader needs to demonstrate honesty and ethical behaviour in all spheres of administration. It is only those leaders who are honest with selfless devotion to the greater good of the institution, are trusted and respected the most, thus able to galvanise everyone to focus their energies towards the achievement of institutional goals.

Final Word: Only genuinely distinguished academicians are seen to possess the above stated interconnected leadership qualities which are highly essential to navigate academic institutions towards achieving excellence in whatever they do. Such great academicians are generally having selfless devotion to the institutional goals. In the past, prominent academicians were offered such coveted positions but now the academicians of all hues remains busy in lobbying to seek favours to become vice chancellors. Those academicians who are desperate to become vice chancellors and use all means in their command for the purpose generally fail to demonstrate the above essential leadership qualities. Their goal from day one remains how they can remain glued to the chair. Besides, their nature of management generally does not correspond with their role profiles, thus fails to make any noticeable mark either on the institution or any stakeholder whatsoever. The organisations under their command are administered more than strategically managed. Their culture is one of ‘Bureaucratic Maze’ than that of creative and innovative leaders with a well crafted vision and mission for the university. 

Author is Former Registrar & Currently Professor in the Dept. of Commerce  University of Kashmir.