Research leadership in Australian universities takes place against a backdrop of policy reforms concerned with measurement and comparison of institutional research performance. In particular, the Excellence in Research in Australian initiative undertaken by the Australian Research Council sets out to evaluate research quality in Australian universities, using a combination of expert review process, and assessment of performance against ‘quality indicators’. Benchmarking exercises of this sort continue to shape institutional policy and practice, with inevitable effects on the ways in which research leadership, mentoring and practice are played out within university faculties and departments. In an exploratory study that interviewed 32 Australian academics in universities in four Australian states, we asked participants, occupying formal or informal research leadership roles, to comment on their perceptions of research leadership as envisioned and enacted in their particular workplaces. We found a pervasive concern amongst participants that coalesced around binaries characterized in metaphoric terms of ‘carrots and whips’. Research leadership was seen by many as managerial in nature, and as such, largely tethered to instrumentalist notions of productivity and performativity, while research cultures were seen as languishing under the demoralizing weight of reward and punishment systems. Here, we consider what is at stake for the future of the academic workforce under such conditions, arguing that new models of visionary research leadership are urgently needed in the ‘troubled times’ of techno-bureaucratic university reforms.