Alex Baird portrait

Written by Alex Baird


Before moving to the Higher Educator sector seven years ago, I worked in various schools for over twelve years, latterly as Director of Sport. At the University of Bedfordshire I am a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Physical Education, an EDI Lead, and the Vice Chair of the LGBTQ+ Alliance staff network. I have just finished an EdD at UCL and the research I write about here constituted my EdD thesis.

In the process of moving from teaching in schools to lecturing in Higher Education (HE) and then embarking on a doctorate, I have been encouraged to read, reflect, and write more. I have gravitated towards my LGBTQ+ lived experiences and perspectives and I find myself increasingly motivated to carry out LGBTQ+ themed research. Being a LGBTQ+ researcher encompasses treading a different and uncertain path. In anticipating a few negative reactions to my research or worse still not being heard at all, I will attempt to speak calmly and clearly in order to bridge a connection and appeal to the shared interests that we might have between us.  

LGBTQ+ leadership has often been excluded from UK HE, HE leadership research and wider leadership research, meaning leadership is narrowly understood (Lumby & Moorosi, 2022; Thomson, 2017). The individualistic, fixed, and binary conceptualisations of leadership, also enable and maintain prevailing power structures and inequalities (Ferry, 2017). For this reason, I was excited to hear about a proposed LGBTQ+ leadership development programme within the specific context and current climate of UK HE and further still when I was given access as a researcher to query leadership and leadership development. 

The LGBT Leadership Development Programme I attended was delivered within one post-92 university and consisted of three formalised classroom days and individual mentorship. I had not anticipated, since I was not employed at the host university, being a participant as well as observer on programme days. However as soon as I arrived on day one, attendees drew me into the group and session activities. I tried to extend a reciprocal level of openness about my personal and professional experiences while balancing my role of observer, being interested without becoming too active. I learnt to wait a while and let other attendees ask a question before I did. I was invited to attend five further socials and three LGBTQ+ network events which brought me even closer to attendees’ lives. Attendees willingly engaged in interviews and I became aware of how their voices were entangled with other voices, the atmosphere of the programme’s queer space, their perceptions of the wider university, and their loyalty to the programme and its survival. 

The energy, lightness, and freedom of the programme’s queer space produced new ways of thinking about, seeing, and enacting leadership. The community of LGBTQ+ attendees who came together (which included both academic and professional staff) facilitated intergenerational queer knowledge sharing amongst LGBTQ+ staff and offers an example of how distributed leadership and discussion works in practice. LGBTQ+ leadership was conceptualised as listening to, valuing, and developing people, and challenging inequalities by voicing an alternative perspective. A form of leadership which is relational, collective, creative, temporal, and offers some resistance to the negative pressures of neoliberalism. Enacting LGBTQ+ leadership was seen as being different (at times) from management rather than the two being interchangeable terms; attendees sheltered their team from or utilised market forces in UK HE to support inclusion and recognised that leadership did not necessarily require an authority role.

I know of three attendees who were promoted during or shortly after attending the programme however this overlooks the longitudinal, curvilinear, and wider outcomes for both attendees (mental wellbeing, career satisfaction, and career direction) and the organisation (development and retention of diverse talent). Instead of assimilating or conforming to normative versions of leadership, LGBTQ+ lives were attached to leadership with growing pride and joy. Crucially, though, the attendees in this queer space reflected upon and redefined the meaning given to authenticity (Fine, 2017), which was viewed by some attendees as beyond an ‘outness’ (recognising the nuances involved in this act), rather knowing oneself (an ongoing process) and embracing this. Whilst Authentic Leadership Theory (Avolio et al., 2004) fails to consider the complexities of relational and contextual factors, the attachment of this concept to the LGBTQ+ leadership development programme offered personal benefits to LGBTQ+ attendees’ wellbeing and leadership potential (Fletcher et al., 2024) and encouraged qualities in their leadership, which have been identified as being essential to UK HE (Spendlove, 2007; Bryman & Lilley, 2009). 

The programme and LGBTQ+ mentorship readdressed feelings of powerlessness in the wider university, and nurtured and developed LGBTQ+ staff talent (and the university’s emerging leadership). This included mentors offering support when mentees applied for specific jobs during the programme’s duration and mentors explaining pathways for academic staff (which for some had been previously obstructed); clarifying the university’s systems and structures; and advising mentees to network with colleagues within HE. Attendees gained confidence to walk their own paths and voice alternative viewpoints. Attendees also spoke about the ‘softer’ merits of the programme, for example friendships continuing to blossom. Attendees viewed leadership development as a continual process of learning from and reflecting upon their leadership and life experience. It was also noted that progression was not always available, nor should it be the only aspiration, given the risk and limitation involved.

In sharing these findings to stimulate future versions of LGBTQ+ leadership development programmes I have been asked why a LGBTQ+ leadership development programme should be prioritised over other protected minority groups. I am not suggesting that LGBTQ+ staff have a superior need to others rather that this research indicates there is a value to leadership development programmes which have a specific focus and membership. However a LGBTQ+ leadership development programme would be particularly meaningful at this moment in time, when LGBTQ+ staff and students may be feeling less safe given the backdrop of a ‘culture war’ in the UK and a global ‘moral panic’ surrounding trans people. HE should be at the forefront of leading the way to positive societal change. I hope my research makes a valuable contribution to guiding future LGBTQ+ leadership development programmes and their accompanying research. 


Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Walumbwa, F. O., Luthans, F. & May, D. R. (2004) ‘Unlocking the mask: A look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors.’ The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 801-823.

Bryman, A. & Lilley, S. (2009) ‘Leadership Researchers on Leadership in Higher Education.’ Leadership, 5(3), 331-346.

Ferry, N. C. (2018) ‘It’s a family business!: Leadership tests as technologies of heteronormativity.’ Leadership, 14(6), 603-621.

Fine, L. E. (2017) ‘Gender and Sexual Minorities’ Practice and Embodiment of Authentic Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities.’ Advances in Developing Human Resources, 19(4), 378–392.

Fletcher, L., Pichler, S. & Chandrasekaran, L. (2024) ‘Songs of the self: the importance of authentic leadership and core self-evaluations for LGBT managers.’ Journal of Managerial Psychology, 39(2), 131-145.

Lumby, J. & Moorosi, P. (2022) ‘Leadership for equality in education: 50 years marching forward or marching on the spot?’ Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 50(2), 233-251.

Spendlove, M. (2007) ‘Competencies for Effective Leadership in Higher Education.’ International Journal of Educational Management, 21(5), 407–417.

Thomson, P. (2017) ‘A little more madness in our methods? A snapshot of how the educational leadership, management and administration field conducts research.’ Journal of Educational Administration and History, 49(3), 215-230.