…thoughts on and about my PhD journey and beyond…

Archive for the ‘Higher Education – Australia’ Category

The thesis has been submitted…Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities

Typeface: Thesis from Lucas de Groot

Lucas de Groot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I’m very happy to report that I submitted my thesis ‘Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities’ last week. Here is a snippet about the findings and also my acknowledgements page.

Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities

The first discovery of my thesis was the naming of the Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Learningful Leadership Literacies that I proposed were appropriate for leadership for professional staff in 21st century universities.  These indicate that the focus of leadership studies has moved from all about the leader (as it was in the 20th century) to the work of leadership that everyone does in knowledge-intensive enterprises (and into what is termed in the literature, a post-heroic leadership space). The next two discoveries found that these LL’s were evident in i) theorisations of higher education leadership research projects (The Scott report Learning Leaders In Times of Change and the Jones & Ryland report that synthesised 4 ALTC research projects about distributed learning prospects for Australian universities); and ii) in the data elicited from the lived experiences of work and leadership given by 226 ATEM professional staff members.  In naming one of the LL’s ‘Sustaining’ I was able to test for human sustainability indicators and these results are less rosy than the rest, and this is reflected in my final reflections. These discoveries led to my finding that the Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Learningful Leadership Literacies were appropriate and indeed indicated as congruent with leadership for professional staff working in universities.

7.3 Final Reflections

My final reflections I turn to three ideas emerging in unison as I contemplate putting the final full stop in this thesis. These are about amplification, the idea of ‘leadership as the business of energy management’ and how these relate to the people I have featured in this thesis, professional staff in Australian universities.

I have spoken several times already about amplifying the considerable body of literature that is now encapsulated within the Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Learningful Leadership Literacies. This thesis has also amplified the voices of professional staff working in universities, who as Szekeres (2004) reasoned in her search for them in higher education discourse, were ‘invisible workers’. I captured as many of these voices that wanted to be heard and they had much to say about work and leadership in universities in this early part of the 21st century. One of the key messages I discerned from their accounts was about energy management, having positioned this as a leadership concern within my Sustaining Leadership Literacy. Given the recollections in Martin’s (1999) research that I shared in this thesis, about the effects of change and turbulence on academic staff, there are similarities in the responses given by professional staff, some ten years later. I gave two accounts of academics voicing their frustration and sense of despair from Martin’s research*. These sentiments have been shared by my participants, and one quote, from Martha, eloquently encapsulates similar frustrations (and risks):

We seem to be working longer and longer hours—I regularly work a 50+ week and also work on the weekend. Most of my colleagues are in similar positions, this situation will increasingly take a toll on our health, work productivity and organizational sustainability. However, what can we do about it? Martha (Generation Jones (Late Boomer), Go8 Manager)

I regard this as a key leadership challenge in universities at this time. I am also struck, yet again, by the prescience of Mary Parker Follett, and her grasp of these concerns so long ago. She was a person ahead of her time. This leads me to ponder whether she may also be ahead of ours in light of her messages about making the connection between leadership and energy management stronger.

Whoever connects me with the hidden springs of all life, whoever increases the sense of life in me is my leader (Follett 1928, p. 294).

*This from earlier in the thesis in the chapter on Australian HE leadership…

Another notable work is Elaine Martin’s Changing Academic Work: Developing the Learning University (1999). Connecting student learning theory with then nascent ‘learning organisation’ literature to frame her study, Martin captured the effects of change in academic work through the lived experience of academics. In this snapshot of change in the UK and Australia, Martin reflected that it did “not make happy reading. They paint a picture of despondence and frustration, with the occasional pocket of optimism” (p. 13). The research revealed 60% of leaders, as well as 80% of academics (in non-leadership positions), complained that accountability was excessive (p. 17). Their concern was “not with accountability itself, but with the battery of accountability mechanisms which they saw as getting in the way of real work” (p. 17). In addition, Martin captured the effects of change on people, something that I emulate in the next chapter, albeit with a different cohort of university staff. She found that while 77% of leaders felt ‘undervalued’, so did 88% of academics (in non-leadership positions) [p. 21]. Two statements from contributors to Martin’s study are especially poignant, and support my argument that energy management is a key leadership responsibility in the 21st century:

The first, airs frustration: “I feel like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. Each day I do the impossible, I perform the miracle—but there is only greed for more, never gratitude for what I am doing” [Senior Lecturer, Social Science] (p. 21).

The next is simply heartbreaking: “I gave to my work what I should have given to my family, I now have no family … and soon may have no job” [Lecturer, Economics] (p. 22).


I gratefully acknowledge my supervisor Sandra Jones for her encouragement, single-mindedness and considerable understanding of what it takes to stay on course as I traversed a lot of territory; and for knowing when to let me explore and when to rein me in. As a practice-led researcher I came with ideas and a passion for this topic which, under Sandra’s counsel, were galvanised into a plan of inquiry. I sincerely thank her for her encouragement, good humour, intellect and staying power. Special mention and thanks, Sandra, for your ability to finally move my resistant focus stemming from these ideas and passion for my profession to what is expected to be in (and out) of a thesis in the discipline of management.

Peter Macauley, my second supervisor, is acknowledged for his encouragement and the collegial working relationship we have shared for thirty years. Having someone who knew me well was invaluable for my own personal journey especially since my identity has shifted, was unmade and remade in the process of this experience. Thanks Pete for your practical and strategic advice, gleaned from your own doctoral education research focus, it was invaluable.

I also acknowledge the support and assistance of RMIT for their research training program, their RMIT/APA full-time Scholarship, as well as the opportunities afforded by presenting at international conferences in Rome and London.

I have many people to thank for their support during this time. Of special mention are my fellow doctoral students Deb Nanschild, Anne Hiha, David Holzmer, Ailsa Haxell and Robyn Ward for the many conversations shared which led me to deeper understandings of my inquiry (and theirs). Thanks to Chris Bigum for the generous chats about all things philosophical. Thanks also to Terry Evans for his initial encouragement to begin the journey and for wisdom shared during many coffees since.

Special thanks to the 226 Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) colleagues who took the time to participate in this research project. This would not have been possible without the support of Maree Conway and Giles Pickford (ATEM Secretariat) who agreed to act as the conduit between myself, as researcher, and the potential participants for this study. Thank you, Linda McKellar, ATEM Vice President, for your wisdom and as conference travelling companion for several overseas conferences; Stephen Weller, President of ATEM, for your commendations of support and encouragement. Thanks also goes to my focus group of experts who tested the survey for relevance and ease of use.

Last but no means least are my family. I would not have been able to take time out to undertake this inquiry as a full-time student without the support of my partner, Philip. His encouragement, support and culinary skills sustained me during this time. I dedicate this thesis to my children Ashleah and Rohan who have been as supportive of my studies as I have been of theirs. They have been the inspiration to look afresh at leadership and hopefully they (and their generation) will benefit from, and indeed champion, the kinds of 21st leadership literacies I have introduced in this thesis.


Builders, Caretakers and Undertakers in Tertiary Education Management

University of Genoa

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Here is the abstract from a presentation I gave at the Tertiary Education Management Conference, Melbourne on October 6.

A transcript of this presentation can be found here.  Comments welcome.


The title of this presentation borrows from the late C.K. Prahalad and his call for us to fundamentally rethink strategy and create radically new organizational capabilities; and his assertion that the appetite for this process of re-examining and reinventing will separate the builders (leaders) from caretakers (managers) and undertakers (cautious administrators).

Although only history can ultimately confirm this to be true, anecdotal evidence suggests that we are witnessing new times framed by the interrelationships between knowledge production as the main driver of growth and wealth creation, globalisation, massification and deepening concerns about our world’s environmental sustainability. These times of change and uncertainty call for different and deeper ways of thinking about our world and worldviews and our leadership practices.

We find ourselves in the second decade of the 21st century well and truly embedded in the knowledge era. Tertiary Education sector institutions are both sites of knowledge work and in the business of knowledge acquisition and dissemination and therefore can be seen as both drivers and vehicles of knowledge production, the main economic driver of growth in this knowledge-intensive era. Leading productively and promoting a culture of learning and performance is therefore vital to the sector and the society it serves.

Appropriate leadership for knowledge based enterprises has also changed but have we transformed as individuals and organisations? Are we being led by 19th century thinking from the industrial era depicted by heroic leadership and command and control practices? Or are we leading ourselves and our organisations in a way that incorporates the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that now mark our lives? More likely, as is the case with paradigmatic change, we are experiencing a mixture of both and that indeed the future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed!

This presentation will outline the emerging trends for leadership in the knowledge era and share preliminary results from an online survey of ATEM members that indicate whether or not leadership literacies appropriate for the knowledge era are being practiced in universities in Australia today.

Rhetorical language and how it manages us

Below is my abstract, just accepted for the 2009 International Conference on Thinking to be held in June in K-L, Malaysia.  The theme of this conference is Thinking Minds: Nurturing the Design of a Better Future.

Invisible Barriers to Better Futures: Exploring HE Leadership through a “5 languages of war” lens.

Using the Perkins framework of the “five languages of war” this paper will explore how the language of hegemonic economic rationalism has permeated everyday work in the higher education sector in Australia. As Perkins spoke about the rhetoric and consequences of his five languages of war at ICOT-07 the dawning realisation for me was that I was being equally managed by this oppositional language in the guise of economic rationalist practice.

The experience of being in the audience that day had a profound effect on me and influenced the direction of my current PhD study This paper will draw on Perkins’s five languages of war: the language of gain and God; the language of dominance and resistance; the language of good and evil; the language of regrettable necessity, and, the language of zealous allegiance to surface the rhetoric and consequences of oppositional language when it is played out in organisational settings, using the Australian Higher Education sector as a case in point.

This paper also draws on a literature review for a current PhD study to support Perkin’s arguments about oppositional language to open the discussion more widely to illustrate how we are managed by hegemonic language—particularly during times of paradigmatic change. So long as hegemonic practices lie under the surface and remain undiscussable they present an invisible barrier to designing and nurturing better futures.

After reading a review of Tony Taylor’s new book “Denial: History betrayed” (McFadyen, 2009) over the weekend, I might just add another category–denial.  Taylor explores Anna Freud’s four main categories of denial: blocking of reality despite evidence to the contrary; acting to support the denial; building a fantasy world to cocoon the event; and the power of words to strike at those who question the denial, and to perpetuate its life. 

These categories of denial strongly resonate with Argyris’s views on the question of undiscussibility which can be explained in theoretical terms through his “Theory-of-Action” which looks in depth at people’s ‘espoused’ versus ‘in-use’ behaviours (Argyris, 2004, pp 8-9) and identifies the prevailing Theory-of-Action model that seeks unilateral control by encouraging defensive reasoning and single loop learning. This long standing Theory-in-Use model named by Argyris as Model I behaviour seeks to win-at-all-costs with entrenched defensive routines prevailing in societal, organizational and personal practice, and is commonly played out thus:

Denial/undiscussability of a problem occurs, followed by covering up or stifling debate, then denying such cover ups have occurred. 

This entrenched pattern of behaviour is hardly new and is very difficult to counter—despite longstanding cautionary tales that relate to Model I Theory-in-Action behaviours—like, the ostrich with its head in the sand; shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic; or, Emperor’s new clothes, etc—even though these type of behaviours are at odds with the recommended management and leadership styles required to operate in a knowledge-based society. Argyris (2004) exposes these latent and entrenched practices when making the point that:

Defensive reasoning thrives in contexts where the defensive features cannot be legitimately challenged. One consequence of this is that not only are issues undiscussable, but that undiscussability is itself undiscussable.

The consequences of defensive reasoning include escalating misunderstanding, self-fulfilling prophecies, and self-sealing processes.  All these escalate because the logic used is self-referential, which does not encourage the detection and correction of error.

When these conditions are combined, a generic syndrome against learning is created. This in turns leads human beings to doubt that errors are unlikely to be genuinely corrected. These doubts and conditions combine to create a sense of helplessness [i.e., protect and defend act or or organization; use self-referential logic in primary reasoning processes; avoid transparency and deny self protection; deny self-deception by cover-up and in order for the cover up to work, it too must be covered up] (Argyris, 2004, pp 1-2).

I will be pondering all of these rhetorical language influences to shine a light on the undiscussibles in the higher education sector in Australia, namely why we aren’t discussing why Australia continues to be an underperforming knowledge nation.

Argyris, C. 2004, Reasons and rationalizations: the limits to organizational knowledge, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Davis, H. (2006) Golden capital and other knowledge-based intangibles: measuring for excellence not compliance, TEM International conference, Sydney, 28 August

McFadyen, Warwick. (2009) Unflinching dissection of history denials: Review of Taylor, T. Denial: History Betrayed, The Age A2, January 17, p. 24

Announcement: Leadership Masterclass for HE leaders

I’m very pleased to announce that I am running a leadership program in 2009 for ATEM and the L H Martin Institute based on my PhD topic. This program is for senior academic and administrative leaders in the tertiary education sector and is a residential program to be held at the Deakin Mgt Centre 10 – 12 February, 2009.

This Leadership Masterclass sets an ambitious agenda to test leadership literacies for the knowledge era, think in the future tense and give executive leaders much needed space for personal reflection and renewal to think deeply about their purpose and pathways to excellence.

The tertiary education sector is competitive, dynamic, multi-layered and globally focussed and new leadership literacies draw on the leader’s ability to build strong relationships, know themselves and their people well, and, lead with vision and strategy. These times call for new ways of doing business, not more of the same things that are not working.

This Leadership Masterclass has four foci:

Reflect, Recharge, Renew (built in to the whole residential program)
Values, Vision and Valour (led by Deborah Nanschild)
Engage, Empower, Enlighten (led by Heather Davis), and
Focus, inFluence and Futures (led by Maree Conway)

I’d really appreciate it if you could send this on to your communities of practice and get the word out for me.

Please see http://www.waypoint.com.au/Masterclass2009.html for full details, cost and registration details. Earlybird closes on 20 December.


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