Leading by gaslight? Nursing's academic leadership struggles

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What characterizes strong nursing leadership in academia? Not what you might think. Popular mythology may suggest strength and certainty: people who transcend, get their way and “call” the important decisions (Brown, 2014). Yet, historian Archie Brown (2014) analysing hundreds of leaders over hundreds of years suggests otherwise, with: integrity, relationship building, collegiality, curiosity, willingness to seek disparate views, empathy and energy being far more important. Stereotypical strength, it transpires, is steadfast weakness.
Leadership in academia is necessary because the work is highly demanding, change is ever‐present and demands ever increase. Indeed, the academy has been changing ever since nursing's entry a relatively recent 50 years ago (Barnett, 2010). The traditional role of “The University” as a cosseted bastion of generating, curating and disseminating knowledge is now transformed. Instead, modern universities seek to square the private good of benefitting individual students by addressing the public good of generating useful knowledge while helping nations prosper by creating more educated citizens (Barnett, 2010). Teaching, for many decades considered mistakenly a distraction, is back to the fore institutionally and individually. Academics who teach are increasingly expected to be accessible, empathetic and techno‐savvy in bringing subjects alive and making them accessible and fun. Expectations grow to do and publish “relevant” research in influential journals; attract competitive research funding; involve government, patients and other stakeholders; and use social media to engage with diverse audiences (Clark & Thompson, 2015).
These changes and demands do not arise from inside the academy. Universities are now characterized by higher external government pressures, top–down decision and policy‐making, and greater measurement and regulation of daily work (Alvesson & Spicer, 2016). As rich and deep disciplinary questions of “what?” “how?” and “when?” in scholarship become replaced by the practicalities of “who?” “why?” and “where?” (Alvesson & Spicer, 2016; Winter, 2009), numerous tensions and schisms around academic identity in higher education result. These lead to strain in academics to maintain a sense of scholarly integrity in this changing world (Pare, 2014) but also strain between academics.
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