This paper presents a societal perspective on academic leadership by exploring the preoccupations of academics as citizens rather than as employees, managers or individuals. It uses a listening post methodology to ask 'what is it like to be a citizen of an academic institution in contemporary Britain?' Three listening posts, comprising 26 participants from 15 higher education institutions, were conducted and analysed. A number of common themes were identified, including a sense of ambiguity and ambivalence about one's relationship with the employing institution and a concern about the fragmentation of academic identities. Whilst this paper contributes towards debates about the marketisation of higher education and the implications for leadership and management practice, its main contribution is to challenge dominant individual and organisational perspectives on leadership by exposing an alternative discourse, based on citizenship, which may offer new opportunities for engagement in the civic life of universities. © 2013 © 2013 Society for Research into Higher Education.