Authentic Leadership in Higher Education

Leadership in higher education is a privilege, not a given opportunity. Good leaders motivate and guide others towards achieving their goals, which in turn, cultivates a pipeline of future leaders who are well-prepared to take on new challenges. Therefore, when colleagues seek out support and encouragement from leaders, it is important for both to be kind, respectful and authentic (Fraser, 2014; Okanda, 2023).

In higher education, leaders are pivotal in shaping the environment by demonstrating how visions and missions are upheld through their actions. These leaders often work within a complex framework where the creation, transmission, and validation of knowledge are dynamic and evolving (Black, 2015; Braun et al. 2013). And in such settings, leaders need to create and foster an ideal environment that caters to the social, emotional and cognitive needs of others, and for those who aspire to be future leaders. This requires a more fluid approach to leadership as a continuum, in which leaders working in different sections of the higher education sector interact more closely with others for effective outcomes.

Further, leadership in higher education is multi-layered and complex as it needs to consider influence and impact, which can be divergent with conflicts to be effectively managed due to different interests from diverse stakeholders, such as students, academic staff, administrative staff, departmental heads, government authorities, policy makers and industry, etc., (Bryman, 2007; Black, 2015). Higher education leaders can utilise the 3Rs – respect, reciprocity and responsibility (Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2014), to accommodate preferences, perspectives and intersectional choices and opinions shared by diverse stakeholders. As such, these types of leaders go beyond basic management; demanding a bespoke set of skills to positively influence individuals and groups, thereby inspiring others to follow and act.

However, the reality of leadership in higher education involves juggling multiple responsibilities, such as service, strategy, teaching and research, including managing teams, budgets, and strategic decision-making while also promoting diversity and inclusion. Given the limited hours in a day and the extensive demands on their time, leaders must master the art of setting clear boundaries. This is where the significance of saying no becomes apparent. Effective leaders understand that saying yes to every request is unsustainable and can lead to burnout and decreased productivity. The art of saying “yes” to the right opportunities and “no” to those that do not align with priorities, goals or one’s capacity is a skill that every leader should master in higher education and well. Even if the answer is a ‘no’ to a colleague’s certain request, there should still be a willingness to listen and care. Otherwise, the culture of disengagement and distance will continue to grow amongst colleagues, and a culture of trust will be difficult to create.

Therefore, leaders in higher education need to be communicating clearly about recognising their limits and ensuring that they are willing to commit to the tasks and people that matter most. Communicating these boundaries kindly and clearly is essential to avoid misunderstandings that could portray leader as unapproachable, uncaring or selfish. Thus, it is important for leaders to articulate why certain requests are declined and to ensure that their decisions are understood. This approach not only helps to maintain healthy professional relationships but also to safeguard a leader’s well-being, ensuring they do not overextend themselves.

On the other hand, those who are not in formal leadership roles or colleagues who desire to be mentored should also explore different ways to create peer-support and become involved in the higher education community more purposely and actively.

Being a leader in higher education is not just about occupying a position; it involves being a mentor, strategist, and compassionate communicator. Leaders must juggle their responsibilities, knowing when and how to say “no”, while still being supportive and kind. Achieving this balance is crucial to maintaining effective leadership, without sacrificing mental health.

Why is this essential?

Seeking support from leaders in higher education can take a lot of courage, confidence and even a certain sense of vulnerability. When colleagues are met with a negative response from leadership that may seem uncaring or insincere, staff may be discouraged from seeking future assistance and become disillusioned. In order for a team to succeed and execute a certain vision, a nurturing and supportive environment is crucial – and the onus of creating that environment lies collaboratively within leaders, colleagues and staff. This challenge is especially significant for those who are from backgrounds that are often marginalised – such as women or people of colour. Therefore, it is vital to show kindness and care, even when declining requests, as this will shape how colleagues feel in the present about their career and trajectory, but also how they will lead in the future.

What are some of the kind ways a leader can use when declining requests because of time pressures and other competing responsibilities?

They should always respond by making sure to reply in a timely manner and setting a reminder to follow through. They need to be authentic through their sincere accountability and clear communication. They need to constantly follow through and follow up. They need to frequently ask themselves “How would I like to be treated?”. Leaders need to show empathy and appreciation while having a deep willingness to support others around them. Even if they cannot offer support straight away, they need to provide alternatives. Leaders need to communicate truthfully yet thoughtfully. While they should avoid making excuses that may seem disingenuous, they should offer a respectful explanation that reflects their genuine limitations. By acknowledging the needs of others, leaders can show how they recognise, value and appreciate others around them. It is very important for higher education leaders to set clear expectations and offer constructive advice.

By responding thoughtfully and authentically, leaders can leave a lasting impact on others as suggested by American writer Tom Peters, “leadership is about nurturing and enhancing”.

Dr Nira Rahman is from the University of Melbourne and Associate Professor Rachael Hains-Wesson is from the University of Sydney.


Alonderiene, R., & Majauskaite, M. (2016). Leadership style and job satisfaction in higher education institutions. International Journal of Educational Management, 30(1), 140-164.

Black, S. A. (2015). Qualities of effective leadership in higher education. Open Journal of Leadership, 4(02), 54.

Braun, S., Peus, C., Weisweiler, S., & Frey, D. (2013). Transformational leadership, job satisfaction, and team performance: A multilevel mediation model of trust. The leadership quarterly, 24(1), 270-283.

Bryman, A. (2007). Effective Leadership in Higher Education: A Literature Review. Studies in Higher Education, 32, 693- 710.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Fraser, S. (2014). Authentic leadership in higher education: Influencing the development of future leaders.

Koohang, A., Paliszkiewicz, J., & Goluchowski, J. (2017). The impact of leadership on trust, knowledge management, and organizational performance: A research model. Industrial Management & Data Systems, 117(3), 521-537.

Okanda, E. O. (2023). Authentic leadership: a paradigm for advancing ethical practices in teacher education. Social Sciences, Humanities and Education Journal (SHE Journal), 4(2), 250-266.

Nira Rahman is a lecturer in educational design and student engagement at the University of Melbourne.

Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney



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