This article is by Professor Peter Bloom, Professor of Management at Essex Business School and Co-Director of the Research Centre for Commons Organising Values, Equalities, and Resilience.
As the University of Essex marks its 60th anniversary, it finds itself at a pivotal moment in its history. The question of who will be the new Vice-Chancellor looms large. However, is there another option? Perhaps, instead of asking who will be our next executive leader, the real question is whether we should have one at all.
The University should embrace cooperative, democratic, and distributive management practices, aligning with its founding legacy of democratic innovation. Such a shift not only pays homage to its roots but also serves as a trailblazing example for academia worldwide.
There is growing research that shows traditional executive leadership, while widely accepted, often exhibits shortcomings. Such “vertical”, “transformational”, and “heroic” leadership styles commonly foster a top-down decision-making culture that can be narrow in scope, detached from the realities on the ground, and demotivating for its members.
By contrast more cooperative and non-hierarchical organisational cultures rooted in “shared leadership” models encourage greater innovation and collaboration for ensuring organisations sustainable solutions to complex problems. For this reason, even more mainstream publications like Forbes are publicly declaring “Are CEOs Still Necessary?” while the none other than the Harvard Business Review asks “Is it Time to Consider Co-CEOs?”
It is important to dispel the myth that visionary CEOs are the key to success in institutions. In reality, evidence suggests that more decentralised and democratic structures tend to operate more effectively and deliver more “disruptive” systemic transformations. The belief in a single visionary leader as the saviour of an organization is precisely that—a belief. The truth lies in the power of collective wisdom and collaboration, where diverse voices and perspectives come together to drive innovation and adaptability.
Indeed there exist various methods and frameworks for democratically managing large institutions through horizontal decision-making structures and participatory processes. In today's digital age, new digital technologies and online platforms can facilitate transparent, inclusive, and efficient decision-making processes, making it easier to raise, discuss, vote, and implement ideas.
Furthermore, democratic rather than hierarchical cultures can better deliver the financial and social aims of organisations such as universities. Participatory budgeting models have proven effective in modernising these processes by increasing democratic accountability and effective fiscal management. This approach better ensures that organisations are meeting its members short term needs while allowing them to deliberatively plan for their shared future.
The University of Essex, renowned for its leadership in data research and utilization, can further enhance its capabilities by implementing secure and open socio-technical systems that promote more responsive and dynamic governance. By harnessing data-driven insights, the institution can make informed decisions and optimise resources in a way that is both sustainable and equitable.
Choosing this democratic path would also give the University of Essex a distinct branding that sets us apart. By allowing academics, professional services, staff, and students to come together to play pivotal roles in shaping the university's direction and recruitment efforts, we would position ourselves as a truly progressive and cutting-edge institution. In doing so, we would enhance our global reputation as “global change makers” attracting students and staff from across the UK and internationally with our commitment to democracy and collaborative excellence.
As we reflect on the achievements of our current Vice-Chancellor, it's evident that he has much to look back on and be proud of. The significant growth in the size and stature of the University of Essex under his leadership is a testament to his dedication and vision. However, as we stand at this crossroads in our history, perhaps his most lasting legacy for our future would be to show that we do not need a Vice-Chancellor to continue to thrive. We can demonstrate that our concrete commitment to democracy and bottom-up leadership is not just based on principles but is also the driving force behind our continued excellence.
The University of Essex possesses a unique opportunity to embrace a more cooperative and democratic future. It would be a testament to the modern importance of our founding mission - a belief in the power and ability of democracy to create a better type of University and world. It is an inspiring vision that is relevant now in the 21st century as it was when it was first made 60 years ago.