Mobile phone and tablet on a desk - technology can keep going 24/7, but we aren't meant to, says Professor Judith Lamie.

By Professor Judith Lamie, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Engagement at Swansea University.  Written as a guest article for HEPI. 

Now I am no scientist, as will become evident, but technology is a wonderful thing – from the advent of the television in the late 1920s, and the CT scan in the 1970s, to the camera phone in the 2000s.

We marvelled at the invention of the cassette player, followed by the Walkman. I was teaching in Okinawa, Japan at the time. Quiet strolls to work were no more, bring on the rock bands.

Then came the digital revolution. Things got swifter and sleeker, but increased in capacity and capability. We could listen to, or stop listening to, more than one band at any one time on a device that didn’t require its own carry-on suitcase if you were travelling overseas.

But what has someone pounding the streets of Naha in the 1980s listening to ELO got to do with leadership?

According to Mary Parker Follett (1924)*: “leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders”.

This still holds true today. There’s a wealth of literature espousing what makes a good leader: resilience, compassion, creativity, the ability to communicate a vision, to be culturally sensitive and to embrace change.

The most successful companies have clear goals, understand their customers’ needs and are able to attract and retain the best talent for the job. Their leaders are able to define and communicate their organisation’s purpose and have the ability to bring people on board to help the organisation achieve its ambitions. Leaders give support, create a culture that recognise the value of the individual as well as the power of the team, lead by example, listen and inspire loyalty.

Of course it isn’t easy being a leader. We live in a world full of complex problems that cross physical borders and emotional boundaries; problems that move between geographies, generations, beliefs and sectors.

Higher education has always had its challenges. We have seen increasing competition for staff, students and funding (at a time when public funding for higher education in most countries continues to decrease), we have higher student expectations, changing employer expectations, more rigorous immigration controls and changing patterns of demand and delivery.

Then 2020 arrived. It was a year like no other and it was a time when we needed technology to support us more than ever, although of course this has come at a price.

Our situations changed, but the substance of our jobs continued. Students studied and submitted essays and theses. Staff taught and attended meetings, via Zoom or Teams or Google Meets, from their kitchens, bedrooms, under the stairs (for one member of my team at any rate) and, if they were lucky, their home offices.

Technology gave us the ability to keep the country moving, and to keep many of us in employment, at a time of crisis, but the technology and its related activities we may specifically have associated with work had invaded our homes.

The computer seemed to be permanently on. The soothing tones of the incoming Zoom call started to be associated less with the lighting of scented candles and more with a John Carpenter movie.

We knew that our colleagues could not be out, there was nowhere to go. We knew, even when they had booked holiday, that they could not be on holiday. There was nowhere to go. So the computer rang, and rang and rang and the emails kept flooding in. Think about yourself at this time. How many emails did you send that started with, ‘I know it’s a Sunday, but…’ or ‘I know you’re on annual leave, but…’.

Back in the early 2000s, by which time the Walkman had been consigned to the garage in the bits-you’ll-never-throw-away-but-you-don’t-quite-know-why box, I took up my first major university leadership role. I recall meeting my Executive Board line manager one day, at an event for international summer school students, and he was about to head off on annual leave. This was pre-iPhone, and laptops were still the size of small coffee tables, but we did have emails and landlines.

I asked him if he managed to relax, forget about work, or did he keep in touch. He paused and then told me about the team he had around him; the excellent group of professional colleagues he worked with, supported, learnt from and trusted. He needed a break though. They needed a break from him! They also needed to see that he was willing to step away from his role to take a break, spend time with his family and recharge his batteries.

This conversation has stayed with me for over 20 years.

Leaders have to operate in a world that is always on. There is no down time, no Off switch. It is tempting for leaders, especially new ones, to think that it is their role to be there 24/7; to prove they are strong, in control, in charge. But this is neither productive nor healthy for the leader, or those they lead. Yes, leaders need to be able to communicate a vision and to lead change, but they also have a responsibility, to the people they lead and to themselves.

There is nothing wrong with taking a break; it is not a sign of weakness. There is a reason why batteries need to be recharged; if you don’t they run out and the light gradually dims and then darkness, if you do the light comes back brighter and stronger.

So the next time you think of sending an email that ‘simply must go’ at 5.30pm on a Friday afternoon, or 9am on a Sunday morning, hit the pause button. Some things simply can wait. Think of the physical and mental well-being of yourself and those you lead. That will make you a great leader.

*Parker Follet, M. (1924) The Creative Experience. Forgotten Books: London


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