Professor Jason Powell is Chief Executive and President of the Manchester Institute of Learning and Excellence. He has almost 30 years experience of working in higher education at leading Universities and has an international reputation for his research. He has authored hundreds of publications including 79 academic books. Most recently his book “New Perspectives on Health and Social Care” (2023) was published by Springer Nature. He holds an Adjunct Professorship in Health and Ageing at McMaster University and is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Liverpool.
Higher education leadership requires empathy as a fundamental value and skill to overcome significant challenges. The main challenges identified are based on this author’s experiences of almost 30 years of experience in higher education who has worked with extensive teams across leading Universities and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Some of the areas of concern flagged are psychological stress which impinges on the health and well-being of both staff and students; staff and external stakeholders not being listened to in a non-collaborative culture; decisions and internal policies imposed on staff not with them which can be far from equitable or inclusive; not meeting targets and managerial threats which can have implications for engagement and retention. Worse, “strong” leadership has been misconstrued to the extent that some senior leaders perceive that ‘managing people’ by fear will get the most out of their inputs and outputs to their work. This might be a controversial point for some, but it must be stated that those who do manage by such a tool of distress should be kept as far away from leadership and management in higher education as far as possible. There is a realisation that the focus on KPIs and the need to implement strategic objectives is important on the one hand given the teaching, research, and knowledge transfer expectations and student experience, but on the other hand, they have to be delivered by human beings. If authentic leadership is to have credibility and substance, it needs grounding with an essential need for empathy in higher education leadership.
What is Empathetic Leadership?
Empathetic leadership is both a value and practice of leadership that emphasises understanding and relating to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of staff, students, and even external stakeholders. For a long time, it was defined as a “soft skill” rather than an essential skill. Empathy involves the active ability to put a leader in others’ standpoints (even if you disagree), showing compassion and support, and fostering a culture that values health and well-being not just through words, but actions. Empathetic leadership focuses on actively listening, encourage open dialogue, and crucially, looking to strive to create a sense of psychological safety for their team members so they can flourish and enhance their self-confidence, knowledge, and skills. Empathetic leaders make an effort to understand the differing perspectives of staff, provide constructive feedback, and take into consideration the pastoral and professional needs of their team. Indeed, empathetic leadership promotes trust, collaboration, and a work culture that individuals feel a part of.
Empathy and Leadership in Higher Education
Empathy in leadership is of great significance and importance in higher education for a diverse range of compelling reasons. The essential need for empathy and how it recasts authentic leadership requires an elicitation of the meaning of empathy as a value and practice in higher education.
Empathy allows higher education leaders to understand and respond to the emotional needs of their diverse body of students. By creating a compassionate and supportive environment, senior leaders can help students feel valued, heard, and cared for. This, in turn, positively impacts their health and well-being and, consequently, their academic performance whether it be undergraduate or postgraduate studies. This is not to say HE leaders do not engage in this practice, but in the HE sector, it needs greater clarity of importance.
Empathetic senior leaders in higher education are skilled at active listening and understanding different perspectives. They prioritise effective communication, which helps in fostering positive relationships between staff, students, and external stakeholders. Such meaningful connections built on empathy enable collaboration, trust, and a sense of belonging within the higher education community. This is essential in team building and allows a culture to flourish whereby inclusivity is facilitated. Empathy allows senior leaders to recognise the unique experiences and challenges faced by diverse groups of students and staff. By understanding and valuing these differences, empathetic leaders can implement inclusive practices that promote equity, equality, belonging, and diversity within the higher education institution. This includes creating unbiased policies and addressing systemic issues that may hinder success for marginalised communities. Engaging students, staff, and communities through the co-production of teaching coupled with research makes the experiential need for empathy essential.
It should be recognised that in higher education, conflicts, and challenges do manifest. Empathetic leaders are better equipped to handle these situations because they can understand the underlying emotions and perspectives involved with their teams. By approaching conflict resolution with empathy, leaders in higher education can foster understanding, explore the conditions of common ground, and encourage constructive solutions that are sustainable.
Empathy in higher education leadership includes professional service staff and academic staff members. By acknowledging and understanding the needs, concerns, and aspirations of such staff, empathetic leaders can create an inspiring work environment. This, in turn, enhances employee engagement, employee satisfaction, and productivity within higher education institutions. It was mentioned earlier that managerial Key Performance Indicators are embedded in the culture of higher education; aligned with this, new KPIs of ‘Keeping People Involved’ is a conscious effort to make engagement a reality for staff through authentic leadership.
In conclusion, empathy in senior leadership is a critical success factor in higher education for promoting and acting on student and staff health and well-being, fostering enhanced relationships, embracing inclusivity and diversity, resolving conflicts, and creating an environment whereby staff and students can be the best version of themselves. By embracing empathy, higher education leaders can shape a compassionate community that supports individual growth, trust, open communication, collaboration, academic success, and academic excellence. Empathy is not a soft skill but an essential skill for the future of higher education leadership.