Critical reflections on academic leadership during Covid-19: Using Complexity Leadership Theory to understand the transition to remote and blended learning

Stella Howden (Lead / Corresponding author), Marie Beresford-Dey, Linda Martindale

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This analysis provides a reflective account of leadership by two Associate Deans in a Higher Education Institution during the first wave of Covid-19. It could be argued that adaptable academic leadership has never been more critical than during the global pandemic when major transformations were needed, not just in how higher education (HE) is delivered, but in how staff work and interact. Literature associated with change identifies the significance of context and leadership. Understanding supportive leadership practices that enabled successful change during this time has the potential to influence future leadership. It will also inform ambitions to innovate and enhance remote and blended learning.

The transition to remote and blended learning through the pandemic continues to be important and complex work, aiming to support positive student experiences and learning. Using Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2017) as a reflective tool, this analysis considers this transition. CLT allows for exploration within a richly interconnected system that requires continual and flexible changes and adaptations, such as an HE institution. CLT proposes that innovative responses emerge from the tensions between entrepreneurial thinking and operational practice within an enabling environment.

The authors draw from a series of reflective artefacts to deepen understanding of how their academic leadership practices had adapted during the time of a major system shock. These artefacts informed the analysis and included recorded conversations between the authors (March – November 2020), focusing on the experiences and sense-making of leadership and changes in learning and teaching in one HEI. More specifically, the contribution of CLT is explored, proposing the value of this lens in illuminating not just what happened but also how leaders enacted change. The findings offer new perspectives on enabling innovation, leadership, and the implications beyond this crisis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-126
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2021


  • Complexity LeadershipTheory
  • Covid-19
  • blended learning
  • academic leadership
  • higher education


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