Three perspectives on leadership in higher education: Traditionalist, reformist, pragmatist


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There is a fragmented and complex literature about higher education leadership representing a diversity of ideological perspectives about its nature and purposes. Internationally, the literature has been strongly shaped by the importation of concepts and theories from management studies and a tradition of scholarship led by university leader-researchers. Drawing on an extensive literature review—drawing on over 250 books, book chapters, reports and journal articles—this paper identifies three key perspectives. The Traditionalist perspective is concerned with the cultural context, arguing that the import of neoliberal business practices into university leadership and management has undermined academic self-governance. The Reformist perspective focuses on values from a social justice perspective arguing for a more democratic and inclusive style of leadership including participation from historically under-represented groups. Finally, the Pragmatist perspective is more functionally focused in identifying the capabilities, skills and competences needed for effective leadership in universities at all levels. These three perspectives provide important insights into the culture, values and competences of university leadership reflecting the distinctive culture of higher education (traditionalist), its values as a reflection of wider society (reformist) and how best to practically manage and achieve positive change in such an environment (pragmatist). An appreciation of these perspectives and the skills, values and knowledge embedded in the literature will facilitate the evolution of leadership development and practice in alignment with contemporary organisational needs and societal expectations. Copyright © 2024 The Author(s).

Original languageEnglish
JournalHigher Education
Early online dateJan 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Jan 2024


Macfarlane, B., Bolden, R., & Watermeyer, R. (2024). Three perspectives on leadership in higher education: Traditionalist, reformist, pragmatist. Higher Education. Advance online publication.


  • Higher education leadership
  • Literature review
  • Culture
  • Values
  • Competence


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