Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine the mechanisms that explain the complexities Indonesian higher education (HE) academic leaders (ALs) experience in performing leadership roles. The research addresses the questions: How do Indonesian ALs perceive their roles in HE? What are the challenges facing Indonesian ALs in their roles in the Indonesian HE context? To what extent does gender impact how ALs act and are perceived?
Design/methodology/approach: In sum, 35 ALs from six Indonesian universities representing top executive positions were interviewed. Data were analysed thematically using a retroductive process followed by a series of on-site member-checking activities to establish credibility and authenticity of the findings.
Findings: The religious principles of amanah (the “altruistic calling” of their functions needing dedication, commitment, and passion) unique to the Indonesian cultural experience influence ALs views of leadership. ALs face role constraints due to resource limitations, experiencing a double bind, while harmonising differences due to ascribed social status and position.
Research limitations/implications: Supportive structures effective for academic leadership practice must be created, further studies on male ALs’ roles in promoting the leadership ascent of female ALs and promoting work-life balance will improve ALs’ visibility and salience in steering institutional growth.
Originality/value: This is the first study to focus a critical lens on the complexities of context-based leadership practice as it is influenced by amanah. Layers of constraints confronting female ALs were documented due to exigencies of gender role expectations and resource limitations, yet they exhibited paternal navigational skills beyond the maternal and pastoral calling of their roles.