Leadership in Academia

I stumbled over two great articles regarding leadership — or the lack thereof — in academia. Unfortunately, both are in German, but they key points were (translating and paraphrasing the authors):

  • Using the classification of leadership in laissez-faire, autocratic and cooperating leadership behavior works. It must not be seen as either-or, but as present to varying degrees.
  • Leadership behavior is not a matter of personal preference, but has consequences on multiple measures, e.g., affective commitment, achievement motivation, fluctuation, quality of the work relationship, and total work performance of the department. Leadership behavior that is high in cooperative, low in autocratic and low in laissez-faire style leads to the best results.
  • There are many good examples of great leadership, of professors who support their staff and help them to become good or even great scientists by opening doors, giving advice and encouragement.
  • However, many academics do not see themselves as leaders and do not think that they should show leadership behavior. Often the reason is the (false) argument that academic freedom and training independent scientists precludes leadership, thus resulting in no (i.e., laissez-faire) leadership behavior. However, mentorship — giving advice and feedback — allows the advancement of skills and work and keeps the independence and self-directed work of the young academics.
  • Bad leadership behavior is usually not the tyrant who plays god in his department, but the lack of systematic (i.e., targeted, deliberate, reflective) leadership behavior. For example,
    • giving critic without constructive recommendations for change and encouragement,
    • making optimistic estimations regarding whether something can be implemented without giving the necessary support and impulses of how to transform an optimistic estimation to a measurable success,
    • pressing for the implementation of their own visions without gaining commitment by their staff first, and
    • academic thesis advisers who are usually not available.
  • Bad leadership wastes potential, because it is a main reason that doctoral students quit their dissertation and leave academia.
  • Great leadership combines support/advice with promoting values which are consistent and lived in the everyday work and can be experiences by the staff, e.g., promoting ethical values like respect, transparency, fairness and setting a good example.
  • Training of leadership behavior in academia was neglected but — apparently — this is going to change.

I think the articles are highly relevant for anyone working or planning to work in academia, as post-doc or professor. The climate of a department can make or break great science and leaders strongly contribute to it. And as Kurt Lewin, who started research in leadership behaviors, said: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” and the texts are great to make sense of leadership behavior in academia.

Highly recommended.


Schmidt, B., & Richter, A. (2008). Unterstützender Mentor oder abwesender Aufgabenverteiler? – Eine qualitative Interviewstudie zum Führungshandeln von Professorinnen und Professoren aus der Sicht von Promovierenden. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, 30(4), 34-58.

Schmidt, B., & Richter, A. (2009). Zwischen Laissez-Faire, Autokratie und Kooperation: Führungsstile von Professorinnen und Professoren. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, 31(4), 8-35.

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