Leaders must respond to the unprecedented challenges facing the higher education system. In these times of uncertainty, hope is the fundamental leadership driver that will help our institutions to remain relevant in our societies. To develop hope-based leadership, we need to answer questions regarding the origin, vision and realisation of this hope.
The higher education system faces fundamental challenges, from the post-pandemic recovery and raised student expectations from pedagogical, employability and salary perspectives, to the growing devaluation of university credentials. Indeed, the higher education system finds itself in a context where uncertainty and change are the new normal, and institutions that do not respond appropriately to these challenges will not stay relevant.
In this context, hope is the driver that will help our institutions to remain relevant in our societies. As well as providing vision and direction, hope stimulates an emotional reaction in leaders that pushes them to work towards their vision and mobilise their organisation through emotional contagion.
Ernst Bloch signals the direction to follow in times of uncertainty: “Many only feel confused. The ground shakes, they do not know why and with what. Theirs is a state of anxiety; if it becomes more definite, then it is fear. […] It is a question of learning hope. Its work does not renounce; it is in love with success rather than failure. Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, not locked into nothingness” (Bloch, 1986, p.3).
Hope is the cornerstone of leadership, and universities are hopeful by definition. In each of our classes, we open many windows to new possible futures and encourage our students to pursue them. Why don’t we use the same drivers to lead our institutions? The current changing environment can be approached from two different perspectives: the managerial approach which focuses on solving problems in the short-term, or the hope-based leadership approach which signals a future-oriented direction that provides purpose and clarity.
To articulate this hope-based leadership, four questions need to be answered:
The primary task of a leader is to map out a direction and vision to follow. As Warren Bennis states: “Leaders share at least one trait: They all have a passion for a guiding purpose, a dedication to an overarching vision. Leaders are more than goal-oriented, they are vision-oriented, and they drive these visions to realize powerful results.” This vision goes beyond the statements that may be listed on our websites. It has to be a statement that helps us to understand the current context, our role in this context and the direction we want to follow. Without vision there is no hope, and there is no leadership without hope.
The second fundamental question for any leader is “Where does your hope come from?”. Leadership development always begins with self-awareness. To ignite hope in others, we need to know where that hope comes from. And this requires time. Time to think, time to explore and time to craft a source of hope that helps us to navigate difficult times. Research has suggested a number of potential sources of hope. The more sources of hope we can activate, the stronger the hope that we will experience will be. Four of these potential sources of hope are:
Agency: the perceived capacity to use one’s pathways to reach desired goals. This can be increased by revisiting successful past experiences where we had achieved the desired goals.
Awareness of possibility: realising something is possible is when hope starts to play a pivotal role. This possibility can be more philosophically grounded (e.g. considering that the future is open) or more factually grounded (e.g. in new opportunities arising from a new context).
A utopian ideal: utopian thinking provides a vision of what we want to achieve and the inner drive to move toward it. Utopian thinking is revolutionary; it shows dissatisfaction with the current reality and the desire for a better way of living.
An external factor: this can range from agency coming from outside an individual leader, e.g. individuals (our team) or institutions (government), to relying on transcendence or the dynamics of history. This external factor is notable as it is relational, while the first three are mainly internal.
The third question, “What parallel actions can you engage with to achieve the vision you hope for?”, contains the fundamental strategies to ignite hope. The vision that is hoped for will be possible if we generate multiple parallel actions to achieve that future state because it will increase the likelihood of achieving the desired future state. The experimental mindset, very present at universities, will help us explore uncertain contexts more successfully. Experiments are not just research tools; they are also leadership tools.
The final question reminds us that it is imperative to continuously communicate what is happening and how we are working to reach the desired future state. This is what will keep hope alive in others. Research shows that achieving goals, even partial goals, keeps people moving toward the target, but awareness of whatever progress is being made must be maintained within the organisation.
Higher education systems need hopeful leaders willing to commit to hopeful projects that help their institutions face the present challenges and remain relevant in their societies.
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