Across the waves
: Departmental leadership in the field of management and technology studies at a research university

  • Yui Yip Lau

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education (EdD)


Based on change management in higher education institutions (HEIs), departmental leadership plays a key role in supporting a change agenda. As middle leaders, department heads currently face the dilemma of negotiating the demands of academic colleagues and senior management in a changing context. However, departmental leadership in Hong Kong HEIs remains under-researched. This study aimed to investigate the challenges faced by department leaders when dealing with the reform of academic departments and to explore the leadership styles best suited to solving these issues. Four academic departments were selected for data collection through 30 in-depth semi-structured interviews, followed by comprehensive thematic analysis. This study argued that change must be managed with the most appropriate leadership styles in the context of the institution. The study identified four imminent challenges faced by department leaders: new development and transformational change in the department; the need for a new paradigm for teaching pedagogy and quality; the challenge of upscaling research; and resilience and adaptation to market forces. The sources of change are not only internal to the institution, but also external. In terms of the leadership styles best suited to dealing with the changing environment of higher education, the results indicated that based on the attitudes and perceptions of academics, distributed leadership is the preferred leadership style. Specifically, the three most desirable elements of distributed leadership were found to be leadership attribution, communication within the department, and leadership power exertion. However, a complex organisational structure and contradictory expectations and demands are possible barriers to adopting distributed leadership in HEIs. This study demonstrates the importance of departmental leadership, emphasising that knowledge of leadership roles, styles and strategies for change is essential to the well-being of HEIs. This study provides constructive advice for department leaders on leading change in HEIs, with appropriate strategies and plans to prepare for the future.
Date of Award21 Jan 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorBruce J Macfarlane (Supervisor)


  • Higher education institutions; Change management; Departmental leadership; Thematic analysis; Distributed leadership

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