How do I ‘do’ leadership?

It’s been a quiet year for the Happy Academic. The past 12 months have been hard, and amidst feeling anxious and distracted and sad about events in the world and in our sector, posts have been a bit slower coming. My apologies.

Among many things, one issue the global pandemic has stirred me to think about more is leadership.

We’ve all had the opportunity in recent months to observe just how important political leadership is – literally life or death important in many parts of the world – but there have also been multiple instances that have led me to reflect on the critical value of good leadership on a smaller scale. One such instance was the recent retirement of my long-term mentor and the (former) Head of our School – an outstanding leader from whom I’ve been fortunate to learn many priceless lessons in strategic and selfless leadership.

Like many academic leaders, my now retired colleague had not received extensive formal leadership training prior to moving into a leadership role. As this article notes, he is not alone. Few of us recall receiving specific leadership or management training as part of our PhD (I certainly didn’t). If we’re lucky, we learn things ‘on the job’, by observing others in leadership roles – both good and less good (what not to do!) – as well as by being thrown in at the deep end (how ingrained in our psyches are those leadership traits acquired through trial and particularly error?!). Only relatively recently does it appear that some institutions have recognised the benefits of investing in professional leadership development for academics at all career stages, and taken a more considered approach to doing so.

Such approaches seem all the more critical right now, given that in recent times many colleagues in Universities across the world have lost amazing leaders in the collateral damage of redundancies and job losses wrought by Covid-19. On the other hand, I have also witnessed others who are fortunate to have retained their jobs showing outstanding leadership in stepping up to try and bridge the gap, providing stability and support, even if it’s just amongst their immediate peers, in a sector facing very challenging times. It’s important to remember that you don’t need a formal leadership role or ‘title’ to provide such leadership! I’ve spoken to many EMCRs (and indeed, more senior academics) who either deny they are leaders, despite evidence to the contrary, or are ‘reluctant leaders’ – they feel nervous about taking on certain roles or responsibilities because they don’t feel they know how to “do” leadership. If you’ve ever:

  • run your own project (most PhD students have!);
  • supervised a student, or a research/technical assistant;
  • overseen a course;
  • volunteered to do something to benefit your Institute or department; or
  • found a solution to a problem at work,

then you have provided leadership.  And while additional skills can always be acquired, waiting til you feel like ‘a leader’ might deprive your colleagues and the sector of many potential benefits (as well as possibly taking a very long time).

Act Now

Often I’ll end a post with some action tips that you can put into place, but I suspect it would be folly to attempt to summarise ‘how to be a good leader’ in this way. There are zillions of resources out there on different aspects of academic leadership, like this and this (which discusses academic leadership during Covid-19) and countless more. Instead I’ll end with one of many lessons I observed from own mentor – that great leadership involves focusing less on what you can do for yourself, and more on what you can do for others. Is there one thing you can do for others today?

I’d love to hear your experiences with good leadership – your own or from observing others! Please comment below or tweet at @KylieBall3.

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