What being a business school dean taught me about leadership

Written by
Professor Martin Binks

11 Dec 2015

11 Dec 2015 • by Professor Martin Binks

Anyone who works in a particular business, industry or sector for a few years inevitably acquires a reasonable grasp of what is being done well and what is being done less well. It's not essential to be involved in the day-to-day travails of management to develop a “feel” for these things.

That said, the view from a loftier perch ought to prove more expansive. This certainly turned out to be the case for me following my appointment as dean of Nottingham University Business School. 

The role gave me responsibility for approximately 2,000 students, 145 academics and 60 administrative staff in the UK. I also had oversight of a further 3,200 students, 140 academics and 50 administrators within the business schools at the University of Nottingham’s campuses in China and Malaysia.

Now, you might think business schools should know everything there is to know about leadership. I would counter that it would be pretentious – not to mention rather dangerous – to consider ourselves omniscient in this regard. As someone whose research has long focused on innovation and creative problem-solving, I fully acknowledge that one of the best ways to progress is to make mistakes and learn from them.

Having recently stepped down after five enjoyable and enlightening years, I thought I should practice what I preach and indulge in a little reflective learning. 

"One of the best ways to progress is to make mistakes and learn from them"

1. Leadership is a privilege and a burden

The view from the management ladder can be dizzying. Regardless of how much sage advice you might have offered from the safety of the sidelines, you are never truly ready for life as a captain-cum-referee.

I like to think I achieved the transition with a veneer of calm, but beneath the surface I was often paddling furiously. I found the sudden surge of responsibilities – and with it the realisation that I had unprecedented freedom to make decisions and choices – liberating and daunting in equal measure.

2. Priorities are built on ever-shifting sands

Leaders have to balance myriad priorities and concerns. A direct consequence of this is the very real risk of upsetting people who might feel their needs should be higher up the pecking order.

I found myself quite unprepared for the diversity of stakeholders with whom I had to engage. Any one of them might be oblivious to the others’ comparable determination to beat a path to my door. I soon had to accept that keeping everyone happy was nigh on impossible.

3. Leaders need to be challenged

Myriad priorities and concerns demand myriad decisions. The best means of guarding against too many errors is to surround yourself with people whose advice you listen to and whose opinions you value and trust.

Although I resolved that authoritative confidence should be a key element of my leadership make-up, I didn’t regard myself as “bomb-proof”. It was crucial that the members of my close team were sufficiently self-confident and curious to provide me – and each other – with regular and much-needed reality checks.

4. We all need to know and accept our responsibilities

In any organisation there will be people who believe certain tasks to be somehow beneath them. All sorts of drivers, ranging from self-doubt to arrogance, can fuel such a stance.

In universities, for instance, there tends to exist a small but significant minority of academics who feel their research eminence absolves them from the perceived drudgery of teaching. I was dismayed to find this conviction among some of my own staff and made clear that I felt quite the opposite to be the case. Irrespective of where and why they occur, such attitudes can prove corrosive if not addressed.

5. There are no second-class citizens in an effective workforce

Like point 4, this observation illustrates that there are two very distinct kinds of hierarchies: good and bad. It's vital to remember that rank and pay-packet are not the only measures of an employee’s contribution to overall effectiveness.

I was dismayed that a small minority of academics regarded administrative staff as second-class citizens. That same minority questioned my contention that the members of the team they treated so poorly were actually more important to the smooth running of the School than the presence of many academics. Such negative outlooks are deeply patronising and give rise to situations that can be extremely tricky to manage.


6. Alternative perspectives are vital

When confronted by a problem it is easy to forget that solutions lurk everywhere. Input from elsewhere – not just from beyond your business but from beyond your industry or sector – can be tremendously illuminating.

In some ways this is the very essence of creative problem-solving. Every one of us, even if unwittingly, will have dealt with a difficulty by redefining it in broader terms, finding an analogous instance where it has been overcome and tailoring the solution to suit our circumstances. I already knew this from my own research, and a leadership role confirmed it more times than I can recall.

7. Dinosaurs are getting younger

Given the extraordinary pace of change, we are all at risk of becoming “out of date”. We might still contribute – often very effectively – but most of us eventually discover ourselves to some extent removed from the cutting edge of technology and development.

I found this to be an especially significant lesson for universities, which are under unprecedented pressure to remain relevant to the “real world”. But in that same “real world”, too, leaders are confronted by the constant challenge of setting the pace rather than merely keeping up with it. For all leaders the need to abandon cosy incrementalism and embrace radical innovation is growing.