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


  • Stella Howden University of Dundee



Complexity Leadership Theory; Covid-19; blended learning; academic leadership; Higher Education


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.



Aarons, G. A. (2006). Transformational and transactional leadership: Association with attitudes towards evidence-based practice. Psychiatric Services, 57(8), 1162-1169.
Ali, W. (2020). Online and remote learning in higher education institutes: A necessity in light of COVID-19 pandemic. Higher Education Studies, 10(3), 16-25.
Bolton, G., & Delderfield, R. (2018). Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. London: Sage Publications.
Gordon, L., & Cleland, J., A. (2021). Change is never easy: How management theories can help operationalise change in medical education. Medical Education, 55(1), 55-64.
Gray, D. E. (2007). Facilitating Management Learning: Developing Critical Reflection Through Reflective Tools. Management Learning, 38(5), 495 - 517.
Iosad, A., Pauli, M., & Attwell, S. (2021). Assessment rebooted: From 2020’s quick fixes to future transformation. London and Bristol: Emerge Education and JISC.
Maak, T., Pless, N. M., & F., W. (2021). The fault lines of leadership: lessons from the global Covid-19 crisis. Journal of Change Management, 21(1), 66 - 86.
Nandy, M., Lodh, S., & Tang, A. (2021). Lessons from Covid-19 and a resilience model for higher education. Industry and Higher Education, 35(1), 3 - 9.
QAA. (2020a). How UK Higher Education Providers Managed the Shift to Digital Delivery During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Gloucester.
QAA. (2020b). Building a Taxonomy for Digital Learning. Gloucester.
Salmon, G. (2021). Unblocking the placements logjam through e-placements in healthcare.
Schleicher, A. (2020). The impact of Covid-19 on education: insights from education at a glance 2020. Paris.
Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Shambaugh, R. (2017). All voices on deck: How inclusiveness can help define your leadership style. Leader to Leader, Summer, 12-17.
Uhl-Bien, M. (2006). Relational Leadership Theory: Exploring the Social Processes of Leadership and Organising. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 654-676.
Uhl-Bien, M., & Arena, M. (2017). Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organisations for adaptability. Organizational Dynamics, 46, 9-20.
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298-318.
Zhang, Z., Jia, M., & Gu, L. (2012). Transformational leadership in crisis situations: evidence from the People’s Republic of China. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23(19), 4085 - 4109.