SGUL JennyHigham 016 1 Cropped

January is a time when people start focusing on the future and many make plans to progress their careers, potentially climbing into leadership positions. But what does it take to be a successful leader in higher education?


This question was put to a panel of organisational leaders at the latest Athena Swan event hosted by St George’s, University of London. During the event, St George’s Principal Professor Jenny Higham was joined by Jacqueline Totterdell, Chief Executive of St George’s University Hospitals NHS Trust, and Sue Rimmer, who was until recently Principal at South Thames College. Together, they discussed what it is like to lead an organisation; the highs, the lows and their personal experiences of climbing the ranks.


On the topic of how you become a successful leader, Professor Higham advises that there are no absolutes, but here she elaborates on the event discussion to give some tips on the qualities and characteristics that she’s noted in successful leaders in higher education.


1. Work hard and do a good job

This sounds obvious, but by being enthusiastic, doing a good job and delivering what you have promised is a fundamental basis for progression. There will be times when the unexpected happens and you can’t deliver. When this happens, communicate the problem whilst there is still an opportunity influence the outcome and keep those wanting the outputs informed. As for working hard – most successful leaders I know did to get there and still do.

2. See the opportunity in every situation

Look at what other people do and learn from their management of situations – good and bad. Even a negative situation can be a positive learning opportunity; for example, I have learnt so much from working for poor leaders. While it can be challenging to report to an uninspiring leader, they teach you how not to lead, ultimately helping you to become a better leader yourself.

3. Say “yes” to challenges

The time managers will shoot me down for this but saying “yes” to new challenges is a great way to grow and learn. Take opportunities when they present themselves, even if they may not seem to be entirely linear. Be interested and proactive, and take the initiative to benefit from these moments, whether it is for your own personal development or that of others.

4. Be a people person, not a people pleaser

“People who get on with people get on”; but don’t base relationships entirely on pleasing other people. Not only is this an impossible task but it can also be detrimental to you achieving your objectives. Kindness and respect in collaborations are essential, but do not preclude having different perspectives or views, which strengthen, rather than hinder, progress.

5. Form positive working relationships at all levels

People who focus on only managing upwards don’t succeed in the long run; professional reputations are formed by your interactions with everyone you work with. Successful leaders are able to recognise the expertise of the diverse groups of people with whom they work, and draw from this to strengthen their own growth, decisions, and leadership. If you need any motivation in this regard, remember your “subordinate” could even eventually become your boss.

6. Don’t get stuck in a rut

If you feel you’ve progressed as much as you can in your role, create change yourself – either within your role or by looking for new opportunities. If there is no obvious route up, remember lateral moves can be re-energising and lead to personal growth. No one wants endless groundhog days at work.

7. Face your weaknesses

Recognise your weaknesses by being honest with yourself and asking for feedback from colleagues/friends/partners. If you feel able, speak to your manager about how to address these and engage with training opportunities both inside and outside of the organisation.

8. Let go of perfection

Knowing when your work is good enough is an essential skill. I have seen people strive for perfection and this stops them achieving anything at all in a timely manner.

9. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Sometimes things go wrong – pick yourself up and keep moving on. Success at times is simply the determination just to keep going!

10. Keep perspective

Invest in interests outside your work, take your holidays and keep a work/life balance.

11. Bring your own qualities to the workplace

Don’t worry if you don’t look like the people in leadership positions; bring your own qualities and authenticity to the role. Organisations need a leadership team with a mix of genders, race, backgrounds and perspectives. Diversity is good. Be yourself.

Professor Higham joined St George’s as Principal in 2015. Prior to this she held a number of leadership positions in academia, while maintaining her research interests and her clinical role as a gynaecologist. She has balanced her professional interests alongside her family life and bringing up three children.

During her career she has received a number of awards for outstanding leadership, teaching excellence and the national Women of the Future Mentor of the Year in 2011. She continues to mentor and lecture nationally and internationally on Leadership. Find out more about Professor Higham.

The Athena SWAN leadership panel debate forms part of the university’s commitment to gender equality in the workplace. Find out more about Athena SWAN and career opportunities at St George’s.