Leadership for the Engaged University: Nurturing Social Capital to Leverage Organisational Knowledge

For the engaged university to thrive requires a leadership model that fosters a culture of innovation-driven thinking, creation, and community engagement by its members.
Written by Antonio Dottore

Yes, we know research and innovation lead to long term growth and wealth creation, both social and financial. Yes, we know basic research must be translated into products and services for this to happen. And yes, the Covid-19 pandemic has put into sharp relief the false dichotomy between health/social outcomes and financial/economic objectives.

But how do we bring it together? How can we improve integration to optimise the system’s performance? We can only do this through effective, mindful, and responsible leadership that is strategically aligned with long-term goals of broader societal engagement and sustainable economic development.

Here, I present a leadership model for the engaged university. It brings together established knowledge from several disciplines, mediated by my experience in public and private sector organisations, and my research in entrepreneurship, specifically business model and product innovation (Dottore, 2009; Dottore, Pazienza, & Vecchione, 2010; Dottore & Corkindale, 2009; Muscio, Nardone, & Dottore, 2010) and university-industry interaction (Agius, Corkindale, Dottore, & Gilbert, 2006; Dottore & Kassicieh, 2014; Dottore & Kassicieh, 2017; Dottore, Agius, & Corkindale, 2008; Dottore, Baaken, & Corkindale, 2010).

Your hypothesis

The model could be linked to the following question: “Does more human capital (as measured by the level of education and/or experience) lead to more or less adaptation?”
If greater human capital translates into greater capabilities for analysis, decision making and action, then we should expect more adaptation. On the other hand, if more human capital brings greater capacity to get the business model ‘right’ earlier, then there will be less need to change.

My PhD research on start-up business model adaptation hypothesised the first scenario (greater human capital leads to more business model changes).

My data, my surprise

My hypothesis was supported by the data and the robustness tests. However, there was a surprise.
The relationship between human capital and business model adaptation became stronger with time. Start-ups with more human capital made more business model changes in Y1, relatively more in Y2 and in Y3, while the strongest association was observed in Y4. We measured human capital only in Y1.

My interpretation of this finding is that advantage organisations derive from increased human capital strengthens over time. Early stage entrepreneurial ventures often contain the owner-founders and – at most – a very small team. What the founder knows, the business knows: extremely short communication lines; vibrant dedication.

Yes … but universities?!

Okay, universities are so different from nimble, resource-starved start-ups. However, some fundamentals still apply:

  • All good growth is customer focused.
  • All sustainable growth needs ongoing innovation.
  • All worthwhile growth is more efficient with vibrant stakeholder engagement.

Do members of the broader university community want to share their knowledge, learning and commitment? Well, can they share? An engaged university can and wants to use what stakeholders can provide.

But how to achieve this in practice? Universities are notorious for their complex, bureaucratic structures that are difficult to manage using conventional business models and strategies. The solution relies importantly on the right type of leadership. A leadership style that creates a culture of careful listening; that helps create knowledge and innovation; and that orchestrates the system to drive strong engagement momentum.

Leadership for engagement innovation momentum?

Good leaders are masters of unleashing human capabilities and leveraging all available resources. But what’s more important, effective leaders must have a vision that extends “beyond”. Therefore, in developing a model, we aim for a leadership type that goes beyond ‘our way’, beyond products, and beyond short term metrics.

Listen. All communication needs listening. Listen carefully for weak signals. Qualitative methods are more useful but can combine with quantitative approaches.
Observe your stakeholders, discover deep motivations.
  • Always listen with humility.
  • You will hear more.
  • Liberates you from pre-conceptions.

When leaders participate in listening, it shows commitment, instils credibility, speeds the process enormously – better absorption, faster. Action is then swifter and more profound.

Create. As a student at INSEAD, I would often read the inscription on the statue of Georges Doriot: “Without action, the world would still be an idea.” Having listened, absorbed, and prioritised lessons, create something outstanding.

Go far beyond the core product. For example, research questions can be sterile, without emotional, social, compassionate content. Outcomes snowball if they make lives better, and that goes much deeper than creating a physical object, or discovering some facts.

Orchestrate. Successful innovation is good. However, it can be copied, the novelty superseded. So, you create another one to be copied/superseded and yet another one again. This builds reputation, but how to perpetuate the cycle?

The best way to attain this aim is by creating and continuously promoting a culture with self-sustaining energy. his kind of culture cannot be imposed top-down. It must propagate organically through leadership, coordination, facilitation, support and leveraging all the parties and their combined energies. Effective university leaders can encourage such culture by applying various techniques, including “walking the talk”, respecting administrative staff (not just professorship and researchers), and mobilising stakeholder community. Remember, your people deliver the promise. If they’re aligned, and they trust you, it will work. They will want to be engaged. And the external community will see and like that. As many successful business leaders know, there are no better salespeople than engaged staff and engaged stakeholders.

Are many leaders in your community your graduates? Will many of today’s students become leaders or influencers? Has their time studying and growing with you impacted their lives? How well do you engage with them? These questions are instrumental in defining the right approach to nourishing a culture of engagement and trust.

Have your staff worked well from home with Covid-19? Can they be trusted, monitored at a distance? Have you changed your perspective… a little?

Deep in my research with the late Distinguished Professor Sul Kassicieh were two items significantly associated with entrepreneurial actions by inventors (researchers named on a patent). You – the leader – could reflect on how to facilitate this social capital:

  • Other lab employees have encouraged me to become actively involved in the process of commercialising my [our] inventions.
  • My job gives me ample opportunity to meet with other professionals outside of the laboratory in my fields of interest.


As a reader, you will see useful avenues for thinking – and action – from this brief article. I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on implementing the framework and developing it further.

Finally, we must remember that leadership and useful ideas/action can be anywhere in any organisation. And often, the crucial relationships are at the direct interface with external stakeholders (see a great example from Médecins Sans Frontières (Mintzberg & Van der Heyden, 1999)), but they only work well when the system works well. Again, look at health systems and community behaviour during the pandemic... and the power of leadership to bring it all together.


Agius, S. C., Corkindale, D., Dottore, A. G., & Gilbert, M. (2006). Developing a new business model for enabling research – the case of the acpfg in australia. International Journal of Technology Intelligence and Planning, 2(2), 114-128.

Dottore, A. (2009, 14-17 June, 2009). Business model adaptation as a dynamic capability: A theoretical lens for observing practitioner behaviour. . Paper presented at the 22nd Bled eConference eEnablement: facilitating an open, effective and representative esociety, Bled, Slovenia.

Dottore, A., & Kassicieh, S. K. (2014). University patent holders as entrepreneurs: Factors that influence spinout activity. Journal of Knowledge Economy, 5(4), 863-891.

Dottore, A., & Kassicieh, S. K. (2017). Predicting future technopreneurs among inventors. International Journal of Innovation and Technology Management, 14(03), 1750008. doi:10.1142/s0219877017500080

Dottore, A., Pazienza, P., & Vecchione, V. (2010). Business model adaptation in the apulian agro-food industry: A preliminary study. Paper presented at the Regional Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research 2010, University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.

Dottore, A. G., Agius, S. C., & Corkindale, D. (2008, 27-29 March). Business model and product market strategy in australian biotechnology entrepreneurial firms: Exploratory study. Paper presented at the 1st Annual Conference of the Academy of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Dottore, A. G., Baaken, T., & Corkindale, D. (2010). A partnering business model for technology transfer: The case of the muenster university of applied sciences. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management, 12(2), 190-216.

Dottore, A. G., & Corkindale, D. (2009, 3-6 February). Towards a theory of business model adaptation Paper presented at the Regional Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research 2009, 6th AGSE International Entrepreneurship Research Exchange, Adelaide, South Australia.

Mintzberg, H., & Van der Heyden, L. (1999). Organigraphs: Drawing how companies really work. Harvard Business Review (Sept-Oct), 87-94.

Muscio, A., Nardone, G., & Dottore, A. (2010). Understanding demand for innovation in the food industry. Measuring Business Excellence, 14(4), 35-48.


Leadership model innovation engagement social capital

About the author

Antonio Dottore
Independent educator, Australian Institute of Management

Dr Antonio Dottore’s professional career spans the public and private sectors, across various continents. As an Economist and Sovereign Analyst in the financial sector, in Sydney and London, he covered developed and emerging markets through various booms and crises: Citibank, Fidelity Investments, Henderson Investors. Antonio has taught in Australia, Europe, and Asia for several institutions: Australian Institute of Management, The University of Adelaide, Flinders University, Muenster University of Applied Sciences, Nankai University. Antonio has an MBA from INSEAD, and a PhD in Entrepreneurship, on business model adaptation. He has qualifications in financial planning and in corporate governance. His Directorships have been in disability and aged care organisations, as well as in Business Schools. Antonio is also Director and Company Secretary of the INSEAD Alumni Association for Australia and New Zealand. Amongst his pro bono activities, Antonio conducts a community radio current affairs program. Dr Antonio Dottore likes to support individuals and organisations aim for both growth and meaning.

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