Breakthroughs don’t happen alone: Why leadership at universities matters

“Science is by its nature a collective activity; its success depends on excellent work environments where those with talent are seen, supported, pushed forward and inspired to break through their own limits — and the current limits of science.”

Leadership. The ability to see someone, to convey respect. An interest and capacity to create working conditions that give results. This is what universities need, according to Knut Olav Åmås. He continues with a blistering critique of the status quo.

We have plenty of socially dysfunctional university faculties, departments and institutes in this country. Their progeny is mediocre research from groups lacking sufficient drive and fuel — deficits that follow from a failure to take care of people, not least of all the young and promising, who are all too often left out in the cold. [my translation]

Ouch! Take a minute to digest this. We’re dysfunctional. We deliver mediocre results. We don’t nurture those who need it most.

A more crass assessment one could hardly imagine, although I’m sure Norway is not alone in its far too frequent failure to effectively focus on the conditions for creating breakthroughs.

How can we respond to this? How can we be better? From my perspective, there is no reason to challenge Åmås’ conclusions. There’s no benefit in trotting out some of the truly wonderful working environments that can be found in our universities. They are there; I’ve seen many. But so are the ones he is writing about.

Our response to this harsh description certainly should not be more formality in daily life; we don’t need more papers to fill out. There’s too much of that as it is. For example, we should not try to change the culture Åmås describes by finding new approaches to annual performance reviews. Fortunately, I’m not too worried about that; I’ve personally had a formal performance review exactly once in over 20 years.

In Norwegian, by the way, a performance review is literally called a “collegial conversation” (medarbeidersamtale). And, perhaps ironically, I do think that more collegial conversations — informal ones, daily or weekly casual chats about research and writing — could contribute to improving our culture. The most productive and exciting work environments in academia are those in which colleagues are constantly asking each other about their scientific progress; they are those in which you have the opportunity every day to casually explain the next step you’re planning to take. Are you part of such a group?

We can mend our dysfunctionality by being more deliberate about leadership development. The goal of more engaged leadership is not increased control over researchers; on the contrary, the goal is more freedom for researchers. When it comes to the generation of new knowledge — when we’re talking about the pursuit of discovery — universities more than any other kind of institution are responsible for long-term, curiosity driven research. Better leadership can feed this process; bad leadership stifles it.

An approach to leadership that creates well-functioning research environments isn’t difficult, either. You talk to people, rather than writing emails. You make decisions about little things then and there, rather than asking for a written summary or application. You show stewardship of your budget so those with goal-serving economic needs can move forward. You let people perform at their best, and let them develop in ways such that their best keeps getting better. You engage with those who aren’t performing and respectfully work to either get them back on the track you need in your organization or to find a track somewhere else that better suits their needs. You see people and you act in ways that show respect. You include them in planning your growth. How hard is that?

In fact, sometimes it is hard. Those seemingly little things are based not only on attitudes but also skills. Having good reflexes in the daily activity of leadership requires commitment and practice. People in leadership positions also have to be led, and their best also has to continue getting better. Sometimes that requires group discussions of where the organization is going; sometimes it requires practicing hard conversations. Sometimes it just requires saying aloud what you’re trying to do in a setting for reflected feedback from well-meaning colleagues.

In Norway, most people in leadership positions in universities get the opportunity to develop their skills and to improve. It’s much less common that we encourage young researchers to think about leadership as an interesting future component of a rich academic career. Almost all PhDs find themselves with some kind of leadership responsibility shortly after they finish their degree; that’s why my university has started leadership education as part of a researcher’s training. We don’t want to take the most eager young researchers away from their research too early in their careers, but we do want them to have a heightened awareness of what leadership can do for them, and how their groups can function better with simple measures.

Dysfunctional workplaces and mediocre results are unacceptable, and Knut Olav Åmås does the nation a service by so clearly calling out this problem. The potential of the university as the most important institution for the improvement and advancement of society is too great to squander on the pursuit of pettiness. The solutions are not difficult. All we have to do is act.

Breakthroughs, after all, don’t happen alone; they must be cultivated and nurtured.

What do you think holds universities back? Leave a comment or hit “tweet” and keep the discussion going!

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Katharine Cecilia Williams says:

    Thank you for voicing an important issue.

    As a Ph. D candidate for a couple of years now, this is among what I have come to miss from my academic leaders:
    – Openness in communication concerning the allotment of funds and other resources. Who got what and why?
    – A tighter follow-up of those who do get their projects funded. Both in the interest of securing that one gets ones money’s worth in terms of research findings, but mainly to avoid unnecessary academic failures due to lack of experience
    The minimum requirements for research supervision is clear and well-defined, but individual academic leaders seems to interpret these guidelines so differently that I sometimes wonder if it has any real consequences to the academic leaders to deviate from these guidelines?
    – A clearer commitment to established guidelines/communication concerning ownership to data. Spending three years collecting data just to be told that some senior researcher needs to be first author on the materiel due to personal declining production is a real motivation-killer.
    – That academic leaders should be held responsible for non-finished Ph. D-projects. Why did the candidate never finish? The candidate himself/herself should be routinely interviewed.
    -It should be addressed whether academic leaders can have the role as an academic supervisor and as an employer at the same time. This is a practise that in my opinion nurtures an unfortunate uneven balance of power.

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