Leadership in academic settings

The key leadership behaviours and roles of formal and peer leaders

Leadership is an important lever for achieving a high-performance, pleasant and safe working environment at a university. In this respect, leadership is not only reserved for rectors, deans, departmental heads or research group leaders; members within the team can also assume leadership and thereby have an important impact on the team's effectiveness and colleagues’ well-being.

The university setting presents unique challenges and opportunities for leadership that are not sufficiently addressed by existing organisational research theories and models. Therefore, this research sought to understand the nature of effective academic leadership across various university levels, including board teams, research teams, and administrative and technical staff teams. More specifically, we wanted to identify key forms of positive leadership behaviour within the university context, not only for formal leaders, but also for leaders within a team (also referred to as peer leaders)

    In a first phase, we aimed to compile a comprehensive list of positive leadership behaviours and leadership roles posed by formal leaders and by team members within the specific context of a university.

    • In a first study, we conducted qualitative interviews with 36 formal leaders and team members across the university.
    • This yielded a list of 50 distinct leadership behaviours for formal leaders and 40 for team members.
    • In a second study, we organised 3 focus groups with leadership experts from Human Resources and Educational Policy to categorise these behaviours into broader leadership roles.
    • This process resulted in:
      • 16 leadership roles for formal leaders.
      • 14 leadership roles for team members (or 'peer leaders').
    • Detailed information on these roles and associated behaviors can be found here.

    In a second phase, we aimed to determine the importance of each of these different leadership roles by relating them to different outcomes.

    • A large cross-sectional survey was completed by 918 university employees, who were members of a board team (e.g., departmental or faculty board), a research team, or a team of administrative or technical staff.
    • The aim was to investigate the relationship between the leadership roles and several outcomes, including:
      • Team identification
      • Team cohesion
      • Job satisfaction
      • Work engagement
      • Team effectiveness
      • Organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), which involves going beyond job requirements.

    Main results of the quantitative study

    Relevance of leadership roles and behaviours

    • The quantitative analysis revealed that all identified leadership roles and behaviours were deemed relevant by the majority of study participants.
    • This relevance was consistent across different groups (board teams, research teams, and administrative/technical teams) and across various echelons within the university.
    • These roles and behaviours can be integrated into future leadership training programs to guide leadership skill development within the university's diverse groups and echelons.

    Relations between leadership roles and outcomes

    • Moderate correlations were found between each of the formal leadership roles and surveyed outcomes.
    • Moderate to strong correlations existed between each of the different peer leadership roles and desired outcomes.
    • When leadership roles are considered relevant but are not occupied or when leadership roles are occupied with low quality, we also see significantly lower scores on the different outcomes, and this for both formal leaders and peer leaders.
    • Our findings underscore the importance of each identified leadership role in achieving team identification, team cohesion, job satisfaction, work engagement, team effectiveness, and OCB.
    • The more leadership roles are effectively demonstrated, the better the outcomes. This holds for both formal leaders and peer leaders.
    • No single leadership role alone is absolutely critical to achieve a specific outcome; multiple leadership paths can lead to well-functioning teams.

    Unique contributions of formal leaders and peer leaders

    • Both formal leaders and peer leaders make unique contributions to each outcome.
    • For team identification, team cohesion, and OCB, peer leaders have a greater impact than formal leaders. This is true for both research teams and ATP teams (board teams were excluded from this analysis due to their limited sample size).
    • Work engagement benefits more from peer leaders in research teams, while formal leaders have a larger impact in ATP teams. Job satisfaction shows the opposite pattern.
    • In research teams, both leaders contribute equally to team effectiveness, whereas peer leaders are more critical for team effectiveness in ATP teams.
    • Overall, we can conclude that while both formal and peer leaders both contribute to the different outcomes, the importance of peer leaders should not be underestimated.

    The role of confounding factors

    • Factors such as age, gender, team size, team tenure, and the degree of digital versus face-to-face contact with formal leaders and team members were investigated.
    • Overall, no significant effects were found, except that the work engagement of older employees was slightly less influenced by the perceived quality of peer leaders.
    • In summary, the positive relation between the leadership quality on the different leadership roles and the different outcomes is generally not dependent on the specific person or team characteristics that were studied.

    We can conclude that having both good formal leaders and good peer leaders contributes significantly to each of the outcomes. Moreover, the combination of having both a good formal leader and good peer leaders is better than having only a good formal leader or only good peer leaders. It is therefore important to invest in the leadership of both formal leaders and leaders within the team, and this holds for the different groups and echelons within the university.

    To support the above investment in leadership development in the context of teams, we can use a lot of material and insights from this study:

    • The labels and descriptions of leadership behaviours and roles for both formal leaders and peer leaders are very concrete and specific to the context within our university. They can be used for reflection and discussion, both individually and in teams, as well as to solicit feedback, both one-on-one and from several colleagues at the same time. In addition, Leading Insights has developed the Shared Leadership Mapping tool which, through a 360° feedback analysis, can map the leadership structure on each of these roles within the entire team. More information on this can be found on here.
    • This research highlights the importance of good leadership, demonstrated both by the formal leader and by peer leaders in order to achieve desired team outcomes. These insights can contribute to making good teamwork more concrete in different teams at the university (board teams, research teams and ATP teams).

    Using the following links, you can read more about the qualitative study, the leadership roles together with their underpinning leadership behaviours, and the quantitative study, where you can also find these analyses in more detail. 

    Thank you in advance for helping to build leadership within our universities!