Motivation for leadership

Associate Professor Fiona Peterson is Deputy Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. Her book – Creative leadership signposts in higher education – was published in 2013. She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK, and on Advisory Boards in the Humanities, and Communication and Media USA.

academic leadership

The significance of leadership in tertiary education and professional development of leaders has continued to emerge strongly in the literature.

However, there are still gaps in addressing the motivation of these leaders, including what impact motivation has on learning and teaching leadership futures.

Who are the learning and teaching leaders?

Academics might lead course or program teams, disciplines, clusters, or learning and teaching across a school; or they might have leadership roles at college or university level. They might have staff reporting to them, or not.

The detail varies, but there are some joys and challenges in common.

Joys might include celebrating student and staff successes, getting the balance right for being strategic and collegial, seeing something really inspirational unfold, or contributing to the scholarship of learning and teaching.

Challenges might also include getting that balance right between strategy and collegiality, coping with ongoing change and complexity, coping with the scope and scale of the role, getting that article written somehow…it’s a juggling act.

So, what really motivates academics to take up such leadership roles, and why do they persist?

(We could ask the same questions about all academic leadership roles such as research, international, and so on…)

Academic leaders may cite ‘making a difference’ as a reason and key benefit of taking on a leadership role (e.g. DeZure et al., 2014), but we need to know more about why and how they sustain their motivation (or not) to persist within the role, and what this means for learning and teaching leadership futures.

As a start, I share some thoughts and a short story here from my experience.

The significance of ‘meaningfulness’ has been highlighted in sustaining leaders in education (e.g. Mayer, Surtee & Barnard, 2015). This is echoed in the business world as the ‘meaning quotient’ for enhancing productivity, through being challenged and ‘on the edge’, breaking new ground and doing what matters, as well as a sense of belonging (Cranston & Keller, 2013).

Studies continue to show that a proactive personality and low aversion to risk correlate with leadership motivation (Chan et al., 2015), and that emotional intelligence including responsible self-management is highly applicable to academic leadership (Parrish, 2015).

How can academic leaders be supported to persist?

Given the value of professional learning communities for leaders (e.g. Jansen et al., 2010; Scott et al., 2008), we need to think more about ways to foster this approach for ourselves as well as those we lead.

I have long since believed that the role of community is important in building motivation, through the collaborative professional development of leaders – to sustain and improve leadership practice, to achieve outcomes that matter, and to advocate for leadership excellence.

In recent months the importance of community has certainly been evident to me. I have enjoyed an uplifting and energizing experience, collaborating with fellow leaders of learning and teaching.

Four of us in similar roles across different contexts decided to write a journal article together. We were interested in what we could discover about the scholarship of learning and teaching across disciplines. Using a comparative narrative approach, we chose a common lens of leading curriculum development to reflect on our own contexts and experience.

Apart from the joy of writing – in snatches and sometimes from far-flung exotic places – our topic was interesting to us. Unsurprisingly, we identified the influence of our underpinning disciplines on the ways in which we thought about our leadership practice contexts.

What was more surprising was that our own different disciplinary ‘world views’ proved to be important in our perception and language about our learning and teaching leadership roles, ranging from strategist or enabler (education, communication, psychology), to curator (design). We also thought differently about concepts such as deep and surface learning, and what the scholarship of learning and teaching means.

In flagging further research needed, we thought it was important to look more closely at the significance of developing shared language for learning and teaching leaders working in interdisciplinary contexts. At the same time, we enjoyed discovering the differences!

Throughout our collaboration I felt that I was doing something worthwhile. For me, this was the ‘meaning quotient’ in action – being challenged, a little on the edge, breaking new ground and doing what matters, with a sense of belonging (Cranston & Keller, 2013).

Overall, I found the collegial experience really useful and very MOTIVATING.


Chan, K., Uy, M., Chernyshenko, O., Ho, M., & Sam, Y. (2015). Personality and entrepreneurial, professional and leadership motivations. Personality and Individual Differences, 77, 161-166.  

Cranston, S., & Keller, S. (2013). Increasing the ‘meaning quotient’ of work.  McKinsey Quarterly, January.

DeZure, D., Shaw, A., & Rojewski, J. (2014). Cultivating the next generation of academic leaders: Implications for administrators and faculty. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(1), 6-12. Available online at: (accessed 3 September 2014).

Jansen, C., Cammock, P., & Conner, L. (2010) Leaders building professional learning communities: Appreciative inquiry in action. Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, 25(2), 41-54.

Mayer, C., Surtee, S., & Barnard, A. (2015). Women leaders in higher education: A psycho-spiritual perspective. Journal of Behavioural Science, 45(1), 102-115.

Parrish, D. (2015). The relevance of emotional intelligence for leadership in a higher education context. Studies in Higher Education, 40 (5), 821-837.

Scott, G., Coates, H., & Anderson, M., (2008). Learning leaders in times of change. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council Report.

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