In China, higher education institutions (HEIs) have a governance arrangement in which the university president and the party secretary occupy key roles. However, their legal roles as institutional leaders are vaguely specified in existing legal frameworks. Based on a four-dimensional theoretical model, this paper (i) clarifies the leadership roles in the dual governance structure, (ii) explores how HEI leaders (i.e. presidents and party secretaries) perceive their leadership, and (iii) applies the unique Chinese practices as a valuable test bed for critical reflections on how existing theoretical models of leadership are relevant in Chinese contexts. Through in-depth interviews with six top-level leaders from six Chinese public HEIs, our findings indicate that Chinese HEI leaders apply more structural than symbolic dimensions in their leadership practices. Whereas studies on institutional leadership conducted outside China tend to highlight the symbolic dimensions of leadership practices, our study suggests that top-level Chinese HEI leaders may assume the role of university managers rather than institutional leaders. We offer some reflections on the relevance of existing theoretical models of leadership and suggest the directions for further theoretical enhancement.