July 2, 2024

The Power of Interdisciplinary Leadership: Insights from the First LIS Salon

Dr. Ash Brockwell
Richard Elson
There exists a mental health crisis across Higher Education

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This blog is written from the perspective of a master’s student at LIS who joined our very first salon on interdisciplinary leadership. He shares highlights from the evening's discussion, featuring insights from engaged students and leaders from diverse backgrounds.

What’s a Salon?

I only looked this up after accepting the offer of attending the inaugural LIS one on Leadership last week. This follows my pattern at the university of jumping in feet first to something they offer and trusting it will be inspiring and enriching, the salon was no exception.

A salon, as Wikipedia told me, was a social and intellectual gathering that played an integral role in the cultural development of the country. They seem to have evolved from early discussions in sixteenth-century France, through the penny universities of the seventeenth century and onto the eighteenth century. It is only fitting that this one was held in the delightful French restaurant 64 Goodge Street (no need to Google the address). The LIS take on a salon is to bring together a group of keen minds from diverse backgrounds to discuss a theme over food. It was more structured than I expected and all the better for it. Imagine an intimate dinner party with fascinating people where small talk is left at the door. The topic under the spotlight was interdisciplinary leadership and it quickly became apparent how varied the components and approaches to leadership in the group were.

Discussing Barriers to Interdisciplinarity

Being a room full of interdisciplinarians we all saw the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach so the initial discussion focused on what barriers we saw within organisations. Fear and infrastructure came up in the discussion I started with Silke Lange, Associate Dean of Learning at CSM. Fear from anyone who finds comfort in a rigid structure where they perform one specific set of tasks, understanding and operating more closely within departments outside of your own is something that can be a challenge if you are not used to it. Infrastructure plays a key part too in enabling dialogue and shared working between disciplines. The protocols and even the physical space of an organisation can be barriers to an interdisciplinary approach. Enabling closer collaboration through changing where people are and how frequently they interact, planned or unplanned, can aid an interdisciplinary approach.

Embracing Complexity and Collaboration

A phrase that came up was “see people as people”, which speaks to a wider point about embracing and exploiting the complexities of people and our interpersonal relationships rather than reducing us to single tasks that fit in a machine-style model of organisational structure. We also talked about fear again, the fear that there would be a breakdown in productivity if people acted in a more generalist way rather than the perceived efficiency of everyone doing single tasks. The analogy I would draw on here is a conversation, sometimes an email or instant message may seem the most efficient way of sending a message, but if it leads to a long exchange of messages at a certain point it would have been more productive to have a conversation. The conversation would also have allowed for additional ideas to arise and so be even more productive. We also talked about the difference between the individual and the collective and how both should be considered when planning an organisation. This reminded me of an episode of the brilliant podcast ‘Cautionary Tales, Office Hell: the Demise of the Playful Workspace ’ ( Here economist Tim Harford explores what happens when offices are designed to encourage productivity or creativity and where both fail when agency is not given to the employees who will work in those spaces. This aligned with a sentiment we discussed at the LIS salon: proposals must be considered in tandem with a range of factors such as infrastructure, agency, culture and skillset.

The Importance of Organisational Size

There was a question of the size of an organisation. Ed Fidoe, CEO of LIS, talked about the structure of LIS itself and his awareness that while an organisation is small enough, say 12-13 people, interdisciplinary working is natural. When expanding to 40 people or more separate teams naturally form within the organisation and there is a question about whether tight cultures within separate teams are preferable to a less tight overall culture across the organisation. Ed described a sweet spot LIS has found in creating strong teams with intersectional relationships between them.

Cross-Pollination and Diversity

Lucy Adeniji, LIS student and co-founder of the LIS impact fund, described these intersectional people as bees, employees who cross-pollinate between departments. Silke summed up the cross-pollination idea as “bringing differences together”. As well as cross-pollination this also raises an interesting point about diversity. In politics we have seen what can happen when different perspectives do not communicate regularly, creating bubbles of thought. One of the biggest advantages of having a diverse team is that different perspectives are constantly brought to the table and considered in leadership planning. In the scenario here, the cross-pollinating bees bring these differences closer together by spreading ideas and cultures from different teams to each other. Lucy raised an important point that diversity means not everyone should be a bee. In any organisation, there is value in having a mix of those who are interdisciplinary and those who are not. Similarly, there is a need for top-down leadership and bottom-up. Just as there is a need for a single, guiding voice, there is a need to ensure all voices are heard. As Silke put it “It’s not about giving people a voice, we all have a voice, it’s about listening to those voices”.

The Role of Narratives and Shared Language

Ed, CEO of LIS, also talked about narratives becoming important, creating a shared sense of purpose. This made me think of the work we have been doing at LIS on linguistics and the efficiency of communication. Images and metaphors can communicate many messages to us thanks to cultural associations that would take longer to explain in explicit words. Similarly, stories can evoke emotions and so have a stronger resonance that efficiently conveys more than words on their own. As Ed said, “shared language is important”.

Interdisciplinarity and Cultural Shifts

Georgina Wells, head of Collective Leadership at the Cabinet Office, talked about how interdisciplinarity is counter-cultural and there should be an interim understanding of what is involved in being interdisciplinary and a different focus on teaching it when it’s the dominant way of being. This raises the question of where we think our culture is heading, are we moving in a direction where interdisciplinarity does become the normal and is no longer counter-cultural? Georgina talked about the power of noticing a need and how to adapt to different situations. We bring different areas of expertise to different situations and sometimes the best position we can take is simply to notice what is missing. While we were talking in an organisational work situation this is easily analogous to other aspects of life. We bring different skills to work than we do when socialising for instance. She also raised the question of proportions, would an ideal mix be, say, 90% generalists and 10% specialists?

Case Study: Interdisciplinary Success in Education

Leslee Udwin, Founder and Executive Chair at Think Equal, shared an inspiring case study of taking her work in social and emotional learning, something she sees as the missing third dimension in education alongside numeracy and literacy. She brought her programme to Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. He brought together early years education leads from all areas involved to bring about change. They anticipated only 10% of teachers would adopt it, yet 82% did. There was a lack of money so they considered a wider outreach. It is an educational programme but they argued the case that not adopting it has negative effects on mental health, so they took it to the NHS. In the end, it was the police who found the money and are funding 3-year-olds on the Think Equal initiative as a preventative programme. Bringing education together with other areas is how they went about creating real change. It was an incredibly clear example of how an interdisciplinary approach can bring about real change.

Leadership as a Quality

Nikita Khandwala, Head of Partnerships at LIS, talked about how leadership is not a position, it’s a quality. No matter where someone has come from you can find leadership in the smallest of moments. Also, intellect must be married with action to ensure it does not become or run the risk of becoming self-serving. As Silke said, this evening demonstrated how important it is to bring different people to the table and hear all their opinions.

I left feeling full in three ways: my stomach full of food, my head full of ideas and my heart full of inspiration. I heard fascinating perspectives and engaging concepts that will influence how I operate within interdisciplinary leadership and which I hope will offer you food for thought as well. I will end with the quote that stuck with me the most though, which is further proof of the cross-pollination of ideas no matter what the source. Georgina recounted some graffiti she had seen on a toilet wall, a message that gets straight to the heart of dialogue within leadership: “Make room for someone else”.

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March 20th 2023

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