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Academic leaders in higher education (HE) have faced a sustained period of unprecedented and complex change due to Covid-19. Leadership capability and adaptability has been tested, and there have been many examples of successful change, as well as damaging and disempowering practice (Uhl-Bien, 2021). As many HE institutions enter a period of longer-term adaptation, leaders need to work with the complexity and challenge in the sector as they develop sustainable and quality education.

As associate deans (for learning and teaching), in the earlier stages of the pandemic we found ourselves working at pace to meet the daily challenges brought about by the system shock. One approach to self-care during this period was to make time for reflective peer-to-peer dialogue. These conversations were recorded, and analysis was supported by our co-author (Marie Beresford-Dey) whose expertise is in complexity leadership. We used Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) as a tool to support our reflections and leadership development (Howden et al., 2021).

CLT is a framework that proposes three leadership functions: operational, entrepreneurial and enabling (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2017). Fundamentally, enabling leadership is the vehicle for operational and entrepreneurial leadership to align; this supports innovative organisational adaptability, alongside the day-to-day operational dimensions. The focus in CLT on complex systems and situations made it a valuable framework for helping us to make sense of our leadership during the pandemic. We used CLT’s three leadership functions as reference points for the evaluation of critical incidents and experiences.

The result of our reflections is the view that enabling leadership is central to progressing and adapting; this was essential to support innovation in the face of intense and necessary operational-focused activities. As enabling leaders, we recognised our leadership practices as being relational, an interconnector with academic staff and senior teams in our schools and with peers and colleagues in the institution. However, enabling leadership was sometimes experienced as a tension between what we wanted to do (supportive, collaborative leadership) and what we felt we were doing (directive, operational leadership). Linked to this, we identified experiences of emotional labour, when we adapted our own emotions and feelings to empathise and support the emotions of others (Isenbarger & Zembylas, 2006). This came through repeatedly in our reflections, associated with supporting the wellbeing of staff and students and in considering colleagues’ challenges, including isolation, and adapting to remote working. It appeared clear that being an enabling leader and experiencing emotional labour went hand in hand.

Moving beyond the pandemic, questions arise about how to continue to adapt through enabling leadership, and how to build sustainable resilience in HE (Parkin, 2020). In the context of our reflections using CLT, we propose that there is a need to further consider the significance of compassionate and empathetic practice as part of the enabling function. Social and emotional connectedness appeared significant in working with others in ways that were sustained and productive. We propose that an ethic of care and compassion should be considered as an integral element of enabling leadership practices, so that an environment is created in which learning and teaching can flourish throughout periods of forced change and beyond.

‘We propose that an ethic of care and compassion should be considered as an integral element of enabling leadership practices, so that an environment is created in which learning and teaching can flourish throughout periods of forced change and beyond.’

Compassionate practices may include activities such as adjusting action and communication to meet individual and team/group needs by offering informal meetings; strengthening relational ties through a variety of communication channels across student bodies and staff teams at all levels; and developing co-constructed reflective spaces. There are several pertinent questions to consider in response to the ideas expressed in this blog, such as: How might you draw from the three leadership functions of operational, entrepreneurial and enabling? What does compassionate leadership mean to you? How have you experienced compassionate leadership through the pandemic and what was the significance of that? What are the key factors that have enhanced or diminished compassion during the pandemic?

Our reflections are based on the experience of HE academic leaders in Scotland. To what extent are our perceptions mirrored or diffracted by those in other countries within and beyond the UK or the English-speaking world?


Howden, S., Beresford-Dey, M., & Martindale, L. (2021). Critical reflections on academic leadership during Covid-19: Using Complexity Leadership Theory to understand the transition to remote and blended learning. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 9(2), 118–126.

Isenbarger, L., & Zembylas, M. (2006). The emotional labour of caring in teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22(1), 120–134. 

Parkin, D. (2020, August 21). Developing sustainable resilience in higher education. Advance HE.

Uhl-Bien, M. (2021). Complexity and COVID-19: Leadership and followership in a complex world. Journal of Management Studies, 58(5) 1400–1405. 

Uhl-Bien, M., & Arena, M. (2017). Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability. Organizational Dynamics, 46(1), 9–20.