Leadership in academic settings

Qualitative study

The qualitative part of our project consisted of two studies. 

  • The first study aimed to provide a comprehensive list of the diverse leadership behaviours that are shown either by the formal leader or by team members in the specific context of a university. 
  • The second study aimed to cluster similar forms of leadership behaviour into broader leadership roles, both for the formal leader and for team members

Study 1: Qualitative interviews

The aim of this first part of the research project was to compile a comprehensive list of all leadership behaviours that are (ideally) demonstrated by either formal leaders or team members (which we will refer to as peer leaders) in the specific context of our university. Here, we focused on positive leadership behaviours that are seen as relevant to achieve positive outcomes (e.g., team effectiveness, well-being of team members, …).


    • Qualitative interviews were conducted 36 staff members.
    • Our sample included participants from the following three types of teams; (1) board teams (e.g., departmental board, faculty board); (2) research groups; and (3) groups of administrative or technical staff (also referred to as ATP). Moreover, the sample included people from the various echelons and research domains at the university.
    • Both formal leaders and team members were interviewed.
    • The qualitative interviews were conducted by HR professionals who were trained in using a semi-structured interview protocol.

    Data analysis

    • All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim while maintaining participant anonymity. 
    • Thematic analysis, following the steps of open coding, axial coding, and selective coding, was conducted to identify the different leadership behaviours. In this process, different behaviours that were similar in content were grouped in an overarching leadership behaviour, that was both labelled and described, in order to correctly reflect its underlying actions.


    Through this rigorous thematic analysis, we ultimately generated a comprehensive list of 50 distinct leadership behaviours applicable to formal leaders and 40 distinct leadership behaviours applicable to peer leaders. These behaviours represent a wide range of actions and strategies that can contribute to effective leadership within the university setting. You can find the list of all leadership behaviours on this webpage.

      Study 2: Focus groups

      After compiling a comprehensive list of all possible leadership behaviours, in this second part we aimed to cluster similar forms of leadership behaviour into broader leadership roles, both for the formal leader and for team members. This process involved two phases: an individual card sorting exercise and a group card sorting exercise, conducted in focus groups.

      Individual card sorting exercise

      • 9 leadership experts from HR and Educational policy within the university were asked to cluster similar forms of leadership behaviour into broader leadership roles.
      • Participants used physical cards representing the leadership behaviours and their definitions in this process. 
      • The exercise was conducted twice, once for formal leaders (with 50 behaviours) and once for peer leaders (with 40 behaviours).
      • Participants had the freedom to choose the number of clusters and cards within each cluster. They could also ask questions and share their final clustering in a digital meeting with a researcher.

      Group card sorting exercise

      • Participants were divided into 3 focus groups (each including 3 participants). 
      • They engaged in a group card sorting exercise to combine their individual input and reach a consensus on clustering leadership behaviours into roles. 
      • This process was repeated for both formal leaders and peer leaders separately.

      The research team compared the output from the different focus groups and clustered behaviours together if they appeared in at least two out of three groups. In the final phase, the research team discussed and refined the labels for each leadership role to accurately represent the underlying behaviours.


      • A total of 16 leadership roles for formal leaders and 14 leadership roles for peer leaders were identified.
      • Detailed tables presenting the leadership roles, their definitions, and underlying behaviours can be found here.

      To investigate the associations between the different leadership roles and behaviours and various outcomes, we conducted a large-scale quantitative study, which can be found here.