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27th May, 2021

Thinking about Leadership Now

Dr Rebekka Kill, TCCE Strategic Development Associate, Academic Consultant and Coach

Over the last few months I have spent some time thinking; thinking on my own and thinking with other people. This all started with a blog I did for TCCE; I wanted to think about what might be coming next. I said “things are very hard at the moment and things are changing. The world is changing, and it will be permanently changed by what is happening globally.” Well, change is still happening, and things are still hard, aren’t they? Thinking About Leadership, 25th November 2020

My questions, six months ago, were about leadership. I asked what kind of leadership we need, and what kind of leaders do we need to be? I also wondered how leadership is changing, given the current context of global pandemic? In order to explore these issues I asked a group of leaders to think about these questions, to talk about these questions and then to write something that explored their position on leadership. These leaders came from higher education and arts organisations from across the UK. 

This group of thinkers have produced some beautiful texts. There are poetic ones, deeply personal ones, analytical ones; so much richness across them all.  What is of real interest, when viewing them as a body of work are the emphases on ethics, humanity, empathy, compassion and generosity. 

When I wrote my first blog, back in November 2020, there was very little new academic writing about leadership during and post covid, I had to resort to other sources of writing and found little inspiration. My conclusion then was that:

We need to reinvent what leadership is, for us, for now, and for what happens next. And we also need to rethink how leaders are developed. And most importantly we all need to make time to think.

Six months on this is no longer the case, some interesting academic, and often reflective writing is starting to emerge from across the world. A good example of this is Amy Chanmugam’s deeply personal essay The menu of bad options: Academic leadership during the early pandemic (2021). She talks about working in a university context during covid, ‘As a human being, I got tired of trying to appear confident that everything will work out. It started to feel dishonest’. She also describes her approach to leadership during the pandemic, ‘it’s natural to want reassurance that everything will work out. I can’t promise that, but in the leadership role I can talk about what we are doing to help.’

For Michelle Newcomb (2021) the pandemic was a feminist issue, she talks about the multiple roles that are expected of women who work and states that the ‘social and professional expectations to perform well in all these roles became overwhelming’. For Newcomb, this has generated a newly reinvigorated resistance:

Through this process of reflection, I found space for resistance. I’ve come to recognise emotional labour as a limited resource that needs greater acknowledgement (Lawless, 2018). Rather than expending this precious resource in maintaining neoliberalism, this experience has taught me to direct this resource where it matters; to myself and my family. It seems crude to commodify emotion for capitalism instead the pandemic has taught me to keep it for real, authentic connection.

Maak et al. (2021) describe ‘communities of suffering’ caused by the pandemic and they call for compassion, values and ‘radical hope’ as opposed to narcissistic leadership. They are also quite specific about the qualities we should expect from our leaders; ‘systemic thinking and the ability to mirror environmental complexity; reflective and critical thinking, and the ability to update one’s views when evidence changes; reasoning and ethical skills, and thus the ability to evaluate and judge one’s decisions in the context of the greater good.’ But where does that leave leadership development? Maak et al., are also calling for new thinking in this, 

it is time to revisit the role of higher education in nurturing these qualities such that the foundations for reflective, relational, and responsible leadership are built. This means that we have to make sure that reflexive and epistemic learning are in balance (Dunlop & Radaelli, 2013) and that graduates have the ability to ‘liquify’ ideologies.

They go on,

What are the forces that shape responsible leaders, their motivational drivers and epistemic imprints of their education? How can compassionate leadership become the norm rather than an exception? 

Our leadership forum, think tank, or idea factory (I struggled to name it) is drawn from a relatively narrow field, but one whose voices are not currently represented in the published literature. Our group of leaders from arts higher education and the arts were encouraged to reflect, after our discussion, and to write up these reflections, we said, ‘These can be personal, political, philosophical. They should be as honest and as vibrant as possible; reflecting the way that you spoke when we met.’ I asked them all to keep their writing short, bite sized; to distil their thoughts. And the results were incredible. From a heartfelt letter to her daughter (Paynton), to beautiful poetic text (Rutter), from a bold manifesto (Wellington) to a thoughtful commentary on motherhood, vulnerability and grounded working (Chatzichristodoulou); there are emotional, angry, analytical, sensitive and beautiful texts throughout this publication; it is honest, authentic and very human.

Much of our work at TCCE has historically been about engaging with both aspiring and future leaders. Through our work, we constantly seek  to catalyse change and think about new modes of development, growth and transformation. So, what we have here is the beginning of something. It’s not just about our leadership group being given space to think, and being given a voice. It’s about the future of leadership. It’s about how we can ‘revisit the role of higher education’ and professional development on leadership with this new thinking and in this new context. So, we are taking this further. This group, this publication and engaging with a broader group of leaders. We’re thinking about how this can be the beginning, a pilot for a subject specialist programme of leadership development. But not leadership development as it was. This is about creating new pathways and navigating a different course.

‘Leading in disruptive times means being able to navigate a different course, to create new pathways through the disruption.’ (Harris and Jones 2020)



Chanmugam, A., (2021) The menu of bad options: Academic leadership during the early pandemic in Qualitative Social Work Volume: 20 issue: 1-2, page(s): 645-651

Article first published online: March 4, 2021; Issue published: March 1, 2021

Harris, A. & Jones, M. (2020), COVID 19 – school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40:4, pp243-247

Heidegger, M. (1968), What is called thinking?. Trans. By Glenn G. J.. New York: Harper Perennial

Newcombe, M., (2021) The emotional labour of academia in the time of a pandemic: A feminist reflection in Qualitative Social Work Volume: 20 issue: 1-2, page(s): 639-644 Article first published online: March 4, 2021; Issue published: March 1, 202

Maak, T., Pless, N. M. & Wohlgezogen, F. (2021). The Fault Lines of Leadership: Lessons from the Global Covid-19 Crisis in The Journal of Change Management, Forthcoming (1), pp.1- 21. Persistent Link:

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