There is a dissonance between the formal role of head of academic department represented in institutional discourses and the reality of heads’ working practices. This paper provides insight, from the perspective of heads, about how the role is experienced and enacted in one institution. Data are derived from 20 semi-structured interviews with heads of department in a teaching-focussed university in the UK. The findings show that there is autonomy in how individual heads structure, manage and lead their departments, and so the role is performed in significantly different ways. Nevertheless, for all heads, the development of a clearer institutional mission, vision and strategy had meant that the scope for strategic initiatives at departmental level was more circumscribed, and there was a significant issue for many heads about how to make the time and space available for this aspect of the role, given the competing operational demands. Derived from these findings, the paper informs practice by making recommendations about how heads of department may operate more effectively. We suggest that a mesopolitical lens, exploring how social practices are shaped by specific disciplinary and departmental contexts and cultures, may provide a productive perspective on the role of middle leaders and managers.