When teaching matters more, leadership as disposition – rather than as position – matters more

When teaching matters more, leadership as disposition – rather than as position – matters more

by Nicoline Herman.

Comfort zones are dangerous places (Pullein, 2018). Covid-19 shook us out of our comfort zones and forced us to think and do differently and say “yes” to the unfamiliar. Calamity indeed created opportunity in the areas of teaching, learning and assessment at Stellenbosch University during this time of Emergency Remote Teaching. Because our teaching matters more than ever during Covid-19, so does our individual and collaborative leadership.   Iindawo esiziva sonwabile kuzo zingabanobungozi (Pullein, 2018). Le Covid-19 isincothule kwezo ndawo yanyanzelisa ukuba sicinge kambe senze ngandlela zimbi, sithi ewe koko singakuqhelanga.  Le ntlekele enyanisweni, ngeli xesha lokuFundisa ngoNgxamiseko kuQelelenwe, idale amathuba kwezokufundisa, ezokufunda nezokuvavanya kwiYunivesithi yaseStellenbosch. Njengoko ukufundisa kwethu kubaluleke kakhulu kunangaphambili ngeli lixa le-Covid-19, ubunkokeli bomntu ngamnye nobethu sibambisene bukwabalulekile ngokunjalo.  Gemaksones is gevaarlike plekke (Pullein, 2018). Covid-19 het ons uit ons gemaksones geskud en ons daartoe gedwing om anders te dink en te doen, en om vir die onbekende “ja” te sê. Om die waarheid te sê, rampspoed het in hierdie tyd van nood-afstandsonderrig geleenthede op die gebied van onderrig, leer en assessering aan die Universiteite Stellenbosch laat ontvou. Die onderrig wat ons verskaf, maak tydens Covid-19 meer as ooit saak, en daarmee saam die individuele en kollaboratiewe leierskap wat ons bied.


Higher education (HE) institutions provide contexts in which features of the HE sector may be either reproduced or transformed (Leibowitz et al., 2014). Ensuring transformation requires change, which in turn requires leadership. Leadership is about influence, innovation, change – in short, envisioning the future. However, effective leadership is not universal, but depends on a wide variety of environmental and organisational conditions (Osborn et al., 2002:807). That is to say, leadership is highly contextual. The Covid-19 context presents special opportunities for leadership at Stellenbosch University (SU).

Leadership in the context of this blog post is not necessarily linked to a position, but to a disposition. Leadership as disposition comes from the heart (Kotter & Cohen, 2002) and is transformational in nature. Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems (Hallinger, 2003). Such leadership is evinced by a disposition of humility, passion, ethics, empathy, self-reflection, team-centredness, integrity and compassion (Helm, 2010). I subscribe to Ramsden’s understanding (1998:108) that “leadership is about change, about looking forward and outward [and around corners, which means being innovative], about ensuring the enterprise stays in alignment with a constantly changing environment [i.e. being context savvy]. It is about establishing direction, about ‘doing the right thing’; it enables people to adapt to, work with change rather than resist it”, all the while being cooperative, participative, democratic, a community, a collective (Gronn, 2002).

'Change processes are often imperfect, but change is the art of the possible'

The unique nature of universities means that a ‘distributed’ form of leadership suits them better (Laing & Laing, 2011). Distributed leadership is about learning together and constructing meaning and knowledge collectively, collaboratively and collegially. It involves opportunities to surface and mediate perceptions, values, beliefs, information and assumptions through continuing conversations and interaction. Leadership activities are distributed among or ‘stretched over’ a number of people, and everybody can and should provide leadership. Thus, distributed leadership views leadership as being socially constructed and culturally sensitive (Bolden, 2008); as not really belonging to individuals (Gronn, 2002), seeing that it does not imply a leader/follower divide nor indicate the leadership potential of just one person (Bolden, 2011). A study by Marshall et al. (2011) reports that the responsibility for educational leadership in HE is shared across a range of individuals and groups at three distinct levels: the institutional level, the meso-level (focussing on a faculty or department) and the micro-level (focusing on modules and programmes). The micro-level also includes academic staff, module coordinators, lecturing teams, professional administrative support services (PASS) staff as well as students. Distributed leadership thus suits HE contexts where all academic staff can and should be leaders by sheer virtue of their profession (Juntrasook, 2014).

'Contextual intelligence leads to change'


During Covid-19, when our teaching matters most, we have seen distributed leadership in action at SU. People in management positions made and communicated decisions, but all teaching staff have had to show leadership: “leadership of teaching for student learning” (Quinlan, 2014:32). We have had to change the way we teach and assess, and how students learn; sometimes also how the curriculum is structured. During this time of emergency remote teaching (ERT), academic and PASS staff have generated ideas in collaboration, seeking to reflect upon and make sense of teaching, learning and assessment (T&L&A) in the light of shared beliefs and new information, and following actions that are rooted in these new understandings. Educational leadership regarding T&L&A during Covid-19 was and still is indeed socially constructed and contextually intelligent (Blackmore et al., 2010)

Such contextual intelligence leads to change, as change is seen as a response to contextual issues. However, if successful change requires leadership, and if leadership is about facilitating change, then we need to closely marry these two concepts (Herold et al., 2008). In this marriage, we need to remember that change processes are often imperfect, but that change is the art of the possible. Change in HE does not happen spontaneously – it requires skilful leadership (Bryman, 2007; Scott et al., 2008). During Covid-19, teaching staff are at the forefront of providing such leadership, drawing from a range of dispositions.

During Covid-19 and the move to ERT, lecturers have realised how they could affect change in their curricula, how they could do things differently and how they could provide leadership by doing differently and being more innovative than before. Covid-19 may have been the instance of change that we all needed to unfreeze our leadership potential and the way we think and act as regards teaching and learning. Leadership is indeed about looking around corners, but also about critical reflection on how we can carry what we have learned into the future. So, how future-proof are our T&L&A and our individual leadership at this stage of the pandemic?

Going forward, we need to consider two questions:

  1. How did we say “yes” to uncertainty and provide educational leadership during this time of change?
    • Understand our context and be aware of how it influences T&L&A.
    • Become aware of our own conceptions of T&L&A.
    • Gain and deepen our understanding of who our students are and what their perceptions are of the T&L&A space.
    • Revise, adjust and develop our teaching practice(s) in the light of the three ‘awarenesses’ above.
  2. How will we maintain momentum and keep providing educational leadership?
    • Keep our awarenesses alive and persevere in what we have done during this time of change.
    • Cultivate a deep culture of T&L&A at SU.
    • Reflect on our individual and collective T&L&A practices.
    • Be aware not only of our own T&L&A practices, but also the practices of T&L&A itself (Sergiovanni, 1998).
    • Research our T&L&A practices and contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).


Although these leadership strategies and dispositions are very apt in the Covid-19 context, they also transcend this time of crisis. Participants in the SU Scholarship of Educational Leadership (SoEL) short course annually grapple with these issues in a scholarly and reflective manner. The SU T&L Policy (Stellenbosch University, 2018) identifies leaderly teachers as “provid[ing] leadership in the field of teaching practice institutionally, nationally and internationally” while also “contribut[ing] to the body of teaching and learning knowledge through publication”. In support of this aim, the SoEL short course was developed to build a critical mass of T&L leaders at the institution. The course takes a broad view of educational leadership practice that includes the supporting practices of critical reflection, change management, innovation and contextual awareness. The course is structured around four overlapping educational leadership themes that run concurrently throughout the course: Leadership in Pedagogy (how we teach for students to learn); Leadership in Curriculum (how we decide what we teach); Leadership in Teaching and Learning Change Initiatives (how we bring about change and innovation) and Leadership in Educational Research (how we grow the body of knowledge through scholarship). One participant per faculty and per PASS environment is nominated annually to participate in the short course, prepared to challenge their comfort zones and to develop their leadership dispositions en route to becoming leaderly teachers at SU.

By forcing us from our comfort zones, Covid-19 not only has brought change to our T&L&A; it also has opened up the opportunity for individual and collaborative transformative leadership practices. Let us continue on this path – and change the ending.


With appreciation to Prof Cecilia Jacobs, with whom I walked the first year of the SoEL short course road, and to Dr JP Bosman, who currently co-presents with me.



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Nicoline Herman is the Deputy Director at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning and the convenor and co-facilitator of the institutional Scholarship of Educational Leadership short course. Her research interests are educational leadership and the professional learning of academics for their teaching function with a focus on an ethics of care. She has been in SU’s employ, working on educational development, for more than 20 years and holds a PhD in the field.

Photo of the author, Nicoline Herman















All views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of the University of Stellenbosch.

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  • Jean Lee Farmer
    Posted at 11:42h, 10 September

    The kind of leadership needed is kind and considerate. One cannot be a leader without having been, and thus empathising from a position of being, a follower. In this, we have to regard our students as followers but also, in certain instances, as leaders. We have to then regard ourselves as students too. COVID-19 has been a leader, a strict and almost merciless teacher. Human(e) leaders are not that. I have been privy to working with colleagues within the CTL, the L&TE Division and many from faculty academics and PASS and over the past months since March 2020, I have come to realise that you are all brilliant in leadership BECAUSE you have all been willing students.
    Thank you Nicoline for this thought-provoked (yes “ed”) and enticing read.

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