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Exploring Consensual Leadership in Higher Education

reviewed by Jasmine Jackman & Ann Lopez - March 25, 2019

coverTitle: Exploring Consensual Leadership in Higher Education
Author(s): Lynne Gornall, Brychan Thomas, & Lucy Sweetman (Eds.)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1350043575, Pages: 296, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Series editors Lynne Gornall, Brychan Thomas and Lucy Sweetman begin by posing the question, What are universities for in the 21st century? They contend that higher education leadership, in order to be responsive to today’s challenges, must be both visionary and programmatic, and must reach outside the traditional boundaries of higher education.

In Exploring Consensual Leadership in Higher Education, the authors have engaged a global team of exemplary scholars, experienced researchers, and teachers, all of whom argue that building strong, comprehensive leadership agreements requires co-operation, collaboration, and partnerships wherein ongoing discussions and deliberations are consensual. Each of the contributors offers insights into how the process of consensual leadership operates within a particular institutional and cultural setting. Together they build a persuasive and diversely documented argument in favor of a democratically grounded and culturally nuanced approach to intellectual leadership through dialogue, negotiation, and debate.

Part One focuses on cooperation, which is seen as an informal, flexible linkage wherein leadership can be open, agile, and lateral. Examples from practice are included from Spain, Nigeria, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Latin America. Brychan Thomas, in his introduction, sets the tone for this first section. According to Thomas, it is important to understand how values impact how space is shared, how roles are assigned, and the type of leadership that develops (shared, contested, flexible, or tacit). Thomas also explores how structure and principles are implicitly or explicitly addressed.

Chapter One by Laguo Livingstone Gilbert examines the cooperation and participatory leadership in Nigeria and the issues that exist in trying to build trust to connect professional bodies and universities. It is interesting that the editors begin the series with an example that demonstrates a lack of cooperation, examining the key role of trust in inter-organizational relationships. Gilberts posits that building alliances of cooperation between universities and industries in Nigeria will strengthen and improve departmental ownership of professional standards and certification, increase universities’ engagement in socio-economic trends, and legitimize the external workplace. Outlining a failed attempt at cooperation and participatory leadership between professional bodies and university institutions provides a unique opportunity for learning. This inability to unite along common goals limits opportunities in Nigeria for many stakeholders. The author ends the chapter with a call to action for initiatives to move all sectors forward.

In Chapter Two, Oili-Helena Ylijoki and Lea Henriksson use a narrative analytic approach to investigate the cooperative work experience of early academics in Finland. They explore the sense of belonging and sharing that arises from people working together on personally meaningful work. The authors end by suggesting that higher education cooperation may be celebrated and enforced; however, it must remain organic where it is sometimes unarticulated or poorly understood. Through these complexities and variations, people gain deeper understandings of what it means to work together at the grassroots level of daily practice.

In Chapter Three, Marita Sanchez-Moreno and Mano Toussaint focus on some of the dilemmas for managers in departmental relationships and share insights from Spain. The authors use in-depth interviews conducted across several Andalusian institutions. They discuss common challenging situations, such as poor workplace climate, scarce resources, lobbying, and managing difficult relationships. They suggest two main sources of dilemmas people experience: professional and personal values buttressed against the influence of organizational structures and institutional practices. The authors found that through cooperation, people are able to overcome dilemmas as they arise. Cooperation requires a high degree of creativity and stakeholder involvement. Managers maintain governance relationships based on consent and also use collaborative strategies like engagement, participation, and power-sharing to lessen any challenges that arise.

In Chapter Four, Tom Woodlin explores ideas for democratic innovation. He argues that consent is fundamental to cooperation. He examines the changing role of the university in the 21st century, improving student access to higher education, and the tensions and contradictions that exist in these spaces. Woodlin posits that leadership must incorporate cooperative values, principles, and structures, and that it is important to adjust to the increasing globalization and marketization of universities.

Part Two of this edited series is dedicated to collaboration. In the introduction, Lucy Sweetman provides an overview of the work of academics from Canada, the UK, and Spain. These scholars share what collaboration looks like in organizational hierarchies, in material and social sciences, as well as between teachers and students. They articulate benefits of collaboration across contexts. In Chapter Five, Alan Floyd and Dilly Fung explore the different types of leadership that are created through an organization’s need to adapt to the changing global marketplace. Qualitative data is used to examine how one university adopted a distributive leadership model to address the changes occurring in higher education. Their research is focused on academics in different roles as leaders and as those being led. They explore ways that both parties have attempted to develop positive and collaborative relationships to achieve their professional goals. This shift away from the traditional leadership model of power in the hands of a few people in formal positions to one where it is distributed more widely among the academic body is seen as an effective organizational change that is the product of fostering a culture of dialogue, inclusion, and recognition.

In Chapter Six, Sandra Acker, Anne Wagner, and Michelle McGinn are concerned with the production of knowledge in social sciences. They examine the working relationships between faculty researchers (academic staff) and their research assistants (postgraduate students working in part-time roles) in Canada. They explore notions of consensuality and how this impacts leadership style as well as ways to decrease tensions and identify opportunities for student inclusion. The authors recognize that building collaborative networks between faculty researchers and student colleagues is an ongoing challenge that requires further research and attention.

In Chapter Seven, Julián López-Yáñez and Mariana Altopiedi employ two scientific research groups called Pleiades and Gaia to discuss what they refer to as a paradoxical blend of scientific authority and distributed leadership. This chapter examines the social dynamics of these two research groups and how their success is supported by the social structure each of the groups and its leaders have created for themselves. From the outside, they may look authoritarian, but from within, the relationships are supportive and social. Their leadership is one based on consent and mutual respect, in which group members experience both autonomy and collaboration in the service of the whole group. In other words, what might appear to be too hierarchical a leadership model is in fact a way of setting the tone and spreading the value and professional outlook of the group beyond its immediate borders. Those who are new are taught the ways of the group through their exposure to these everyday and familiar situations.

In Chapter Eight, Roger Cannon, through interviews and a mixture of documentation, presents a case study of collaboration in distance learning from the UK’s largest distance learning provider. He examines how socio-technical networks are evolved and then sometimes dissolved. Cannon argues that it is the nature and strength of engagement and enrollment in networks of collaboration and programs of action that shape how leadership emerges. He argues that collaborative leadership is demonstrated as emergent and shared across boundaries, as multiple actors begin to understand their networks and how best to operationalize them in the service of a goal.

The last section, Part Three, focusses on partnership: the authors examine relationships that extend beyond those of cooperation and collaboration. Partnerships in a pedagogical context refer to a relationship where every partner is actively engaged in and stands to benefit from the process of learning and working together (Healy, Flint, and Harrington, 2014, p. 7). Partnerships that come in the form of government funding, policy initiatives, or contracts tend to be lengthier. They also often involve connecting with organizations and groups of people, which may include establishing alliances with people, regions, or sectors outside of the region and/or country. In this section, using case studies within higher learning as well as from other contexts, the authors discuss some of the problems of such consensual leaderships.

Chilean academics Carol Guzmán-Valenzuela and Ana Luisa García, start off Chapter Nine by examining some of the inequalities that arise with cross-cultural globalized partnerships, which are often influenced by colonialism and current hegemonies. They critically examine issues of collaborative relationships between academics and universities abroad by viewing them through historical and post-colonial lenses. They suggest that Chile has a history of sending academics and graduates abroad who return to Chile still absorbed in a foreign milieu. They suggest that those in leadership must question this in order to own or disown these legacies. The critical stance in this chapter and others highlights problems that arise in consensual relationships that are not equal.

In Chapter Ten, Paul Thomas provides insight on what partnerships in the UK private sector look like. To promote positive change, he argues for a human approach as opposed to a metrics-centered approach. He also points out that academic leadership has been impacted by a globalized world. Nations are seeking out world-class universities to educate their people to enable their nation to prosper, which has created a series of trends that academic leaders must address (Stephen & Antony, 2017).

In Chapter Eleven, Brian Denman, Yumiko Hada, Qiang Liu and David Turner share their experiences as lone international scholars in organizations outside of their home countries. Coming from Australia, Japan, China and the UK respectively, they walk readers through their stories of development, growth, cultural learning, innovative work, lost opportunity, and wasted human capital in their struggles to develop effective partnerships. In Chapter Twelve, Thomas, Gornall and Murph, as in many of the examples in the book, harken back to the importance of trust, cultural contexts, and leadership styles in what they call partner-making work. They suggest that it is important to know when it is strategically wise to partner or not, as not all alliances are risk-free.

In Chapter Thirteen, the last chapter, Lynne Gornall and Daniel Bickerton look comparatively at jazz ensembles to explore the creativity in leadership and collaboration. The blended insights from higher education academics and groups from different sectors are combined to provide a unique and creative way of viewing leadership and collaboration. The authors argue that originality and innovation is celebrated in music and scholarship. The musician, like the researcher, is always looking for a new place to operate or play. They suggest that if we want to become more innovative, we must erect fewer boundaries in personal relationships, roles, and organizational structures. They argue further that creativity and innovation can be stifled by rigidity and micromanagement.

Exploring Consensual Leadership in Higher Education is a unique volume of work that focuses on consensual leadership models in academia and emerging industries. The international contributions from Australia, North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe provide a global overview of the importance of building higher education relationships and private alliances that are rooted in collegiality, collaboration, teamwork, and partnerships. The rich and varied series of work that focuses on the themes of internationalism and agreement-making within the context of increasing global complexity and fragmentation is both a strength and a weakness. I would have liked to see more focused and critical discussions on leadership and challenging the neoliberal agenda in education. Notwithstanding this area of critique, Lynne Gornall, Brychan Thomas, and Lucy Sweetman have heightened the awareness of the value of collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships in academic work and the importance of consensual leadership. This book will be of value to students in educational leadership, researchers, and teachers who have an interest in leadership based on cooperation, collaboration, and partnership that transcends the traditional boundaries of higher education.


Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York, England: Higher Education Academy.

Stephen, G. A., & Antony, J. (2017). Academic leadership—special or simple. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 66(5), 630­–637.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 25, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22725, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:43:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Jasmine Jackman
    University of Toronto
    E-mail Author
    JASMINE JACKMAN is a Vice Principal (Acting) and equity and social justice advocate. Jasmine is passionate about teaching culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy, volunteering, and working with underserviced youth. Jasmine has been a teacher mentor, a facilitator of equity and special education workshops (at the school and university levels), a summer school assistant administrator and an active member on many community boards and associations for several years to bring about meaningful change. Jasmine is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institution for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Jasmine's research interests include: addressing social and educational inequalities in underserved communities, culturally responsive pedagogy, social and critical theory, race and ethnicity, teacher practice and mentoring for diversity and social justice.
  • Ann Lopez
    University of Toronto
    E-mail Author
    ANNE LOPEZ is a faculty member in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She is also the Director of the Center for Leadership and Diversity and Advisor to the Provost on Access Programs. Dr. Jackman has wide experience in public education in Canada as a secondary school administrator and teacher in one of the Canada’s largest school boards. Her teaching and research focuses on issues of equity, diversity, decolonial education, culturally responsive education, social justice leadership, school leadership and student engagement. Her most recent publications include Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Leadership in Diverse Contexts: From Theory to Action; Transformative Pedagogies in Teacher Education, and journal articles in Multicultural Perspectives, Multicultural Education Review, Mentoring and Tutoring, Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, and the Journal of Cases in Educational Administration. Dr. Jackman is an editorial board member of the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership.
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