Professor Christina Hughes and Dr Maria Kukhareva

The world of Higher Education is changing: we are living and working in the age of information overload, rapid technological growth, and a new sense of urgency.  We see forty percent of UK Universities reporting financial losses according to HEPI, with concerns that more may be moving into this position (At Amber: The financial position of UK universities – HEPI). The Universities are entering what can be described as the VUCA times, with a stricter regulatory environment, diminishing funding streams, changes and challenges associated with recruitment of both students and staff; and an ever-increasing emphasis on the wellbeing and overall experience of both students and staff.

These new challenges are a compelling reason for us to pause and rethink what makes new leaders and universities fit and ready for future challenges. The recent Advance HE report highlights the complex, multiple challenges that the leaders of today are facing, with pressures to focus on collegiality, well-being, and inclusion, and, at the same time, on high performance, targets, and strategic adaptability.

There’s also a growing recognition of the pressure working women are under, and of the leadership roles not being attractive enough for most women, who will have other commitments outside work. As the fight goes on for gender equity, and for more women leaders at the top, we have also observed a number of high-status female leaders in politics and the private sector choosing to step down (or step away?) from the leadership positions that they found unsustainable. This includes Susan Wojcicki of YouTube and Marne Levine of Meta, Sharon White of John Lewis, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and recently Helena Helmersson, CEO of H&M. We also see concerns in the Higher Education media over higher numbers of women leaving academia, compared to men.

If these events are not stand-alone occurrences, but an emerging trend, this could be a sign that we need to review the way leadership is done, for true equity. It is perhaps not surprising that we see the rise of the new thought leadership, that draws on a number of holistic, integrative leadership theories and practices, in an attempt to offer today’s leaders a set of tools, to empower them in navigating these complex times.

The importance of environments and spaces – both inside and outside us is growing in significance and has been attracting the attention of leadership experts. There is a renewed curiosity in slowing down as a way to strategic success, where unhurried, deliberate, thoughtful leadership takes over the constant, and therefore potentially unsustainable sense of urgency. We see such concepts arise as ‘strategic slowness’, ‘deliberate calm’, ‘holistic health’ and ‘leader as healer’.

It is becoming apparent that the space and time to think is a precious and absolutely essential resource for good quality leadership – as well as for our mental and physical energy. Doing the same thing as we’ve always done, as individuals and as a society no longer delivers what is required. In this attention-greedy world, and with universities sometimes described as ‘greedy’ institutions, how do we preserve – or indeed create – the vital calm spaces in our working lives that are needed to step back, reflect and ensure we enter the world, and address its challenges, from a grounded centered connected place?

We see that creating, and holding space needs to occur at three levels: at the level of ‘inner’ leadership; at the level of peer community; and at the level of influencing and leading others.

Holding Space for ourselves: leadership practice

We call this level the ‘inner core’ of leadership: we create, and protect the physical, mental, and emotional space that we need to maintain clarity, focus, and deliberate sense of purpose. While all good leaders are focused on supporting others, not everyone has a solid regular practice, which allows them to stay grounded and focused. Those around us usually read our behavior, our emotions, and our state of mind – and take our actions and words as clues, both verbal and non-verbal. This is why personal practice, at the level of our inner core, is the foundation of good leadership. This can be a breathing practice, meditation, setting aside time for a walk, or spending five minutes at the start of each day to set our intention. It’s simple but perhaps not always easy- unless it becomes a leadership habit; a regular leadership practice. This understanding of holding space for yourself as an integral part of effective leadership practice can be integrated into the way Universities approach organisational development and leadership development. We are starting to see messages supporting this in the sector, for example, Advance HE’s into leadership wellbeing as a route to organisational resilience.

Shared spaces: community, networks, and peer support

A sense of community, belonging, and the opportunity to give and receive peer support is crucial for sustaining good leadership. As we continue fighting for more equitable gender representation in leadership positions, it is important that both current and aspiring female leaders have adequate support around them. As you climb the career ladder, the opportunity for deep and meaningful peer exchange diminishes. Female leaders, we speak to often name external leadership programs as their best – and sometimes only- an opportunity to connect with other women leaders. While this is very valuable, this peer support usually dissipates once the program ends. Universities need to put their resources together and facilitate cross-sector sustained community structures, which act as a source of expertise, belonging, and empowerment for women leaders. Organisations such as Advance HE, the WHEN network, and Women-Space are perfectly placed to help grow such communities of practice.

Holding space for others: leading teams and universities in turbulent times

When we speak to senior female leaders, they often speak passionately about supporting their teams and communities through times of change, when workloads are high and the sense of urgency is driving the way we operate. During such times, it is even more crucial for our leaders to maintain composure, make decisions, and support others from a place of focus, clarity, purpose, and ‘deliberate calm’ (McKinsey). Nancy Kline’s thinking environment framework serves as a great example of how we can create, and hold space for others, with meaningful listening and purposeful responding at the heart of it.

We explore these three practices at length in our new project, Holding Space as the Art of Leadership. We bring together a community of women in leadership positions in UK and Australian Universities, to explore holding space as a leadership practice.

About the Authors

Professor Christina Hughes, Founder and CEO of Women-Space

Named as a “Woman of Influence 2023” in Baroness Sandy Verma’s annual list Christina has executive leadership experience in both research and teaching-intensive universities having been Pro-Vice Chancellor, University of Warwick, Provost, Sheffield Hallam University and Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Kent. She is also an internationally leading feminist educator and researcher with over 15 books to her name with a £1.6m achievement in external research grant capture. Throughout her career, Christina has mentored and coached many women, and men, at all levels of university life. She holds ILM Level 7 qualification in Executive Coaching and Mentoring, is an accredited StrengthsProfile coach, and a member of the Institute of Learning and Management. Christina is a Visiting Professor at Coventry University and an Honorary Professor at the University of Kent. She is also an Honorary Fellow of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy which she set up; a lifetime fellow of the Gender and Education Association in recognition of her role as inaugural co-chair; and external advisor for EDI for the Association of British Chinese Professors.  Christina has also been a Governor at Leeds Beckett University; a Trustee for Villiers Park Educational Trust and a Trustee for the Royal Society of the Arts Academies.

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Associate at Women-Space

Dr. Kukhareva is an independent consultant, who specialises in organisational culture, leadership development, and psychological safety. In her most recent role, Maria played a key role in developing Women Leaders and building women’s networks at her institution and across the sector. Maria’s current interest is innovative leadership approaches in the context of increasing complexity. Maria works in interdisciplinary, integrative ways, bringing embodied and regenerative practices into coaching and leadership development. Maria is a certified Zen Leadership Practitioner and a certified Physical Intelligence Coach.

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