This week I participated in a conversation on leadership issues in front of an audience of women leaders from the Museum world. The conversation, facilitated/chaired by Vivienne Parry, was with Professor Anne Johnson, an epidemiologist from UCL whom I had never met before. There is something slightly bizarre in having a frank and open discussion about one’s life with a complete stranger in front of an audience of other complete strangers, but it appears to be a format which can be effective at bringing out useful concepts. As I described in an earlier post, it was Vivienne Parry who first introduced me to Impostor Syndrome, and she got that idea out of the way briskly in her introduction. We did not, on this occasion, dwell upon it; it does, however, lurk underneath the rest of this post. For this conversation, though, the emphasis was on what made a leader and reflections about how Anne and I had both had got to our respective positions of implicit leadership.
I have to say, when I was pondering these questions in advance of the talk, impostor syndrome was not far from my mind as I contemplated the fact that I have never been either a head of department or a PVC, the standard senior roles in a university. But, as Vivienne rapidly pointed out as we got going, there is a difference between leadership and management, even without straying too far into MBA-speak. Running a department probably has attributes of both, but leadership does not necessarily mean managing anything – people or bureaucracy. When I asked a senior (male) colleague about this, he could instantly reel off a list of the attributes he associated with his own current role and how this made him a leader not a manager; things such as strategic thinking and setting the tone for his organisation. As will become apparent, I feel much less confident I know how I define a leader and am not particularly comfortable with it as a description of myself.
We were operating under Chatham House Rules, so I am not going to go through much of what was said, and anyhow it is a bit of a blur in retrospect. Vivienne summed up by suggesting that being a leader meant going out on a limb, not following the straight and narrow but being able to take a stand and stick with it. Certainly both Anne and I had, in our different ways in our research, not simply followed conventional wisdom; we had both done something a bit wacky and out of the mainstream and to some extent that had enabled our success in research. Vivienne’s description may be an appropriate description of research leadership, but I am not convinced it is adequate to describe leadership more broadly, which I think was what we were aiming at. However, if one can live with that maverick approach in research it is probably the case that one is equally able to step back and look at things from an unusual angle in other, more strategic instances; maybe it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for leadership.
Vivienne asked both Anne and myself to identify a moment when we felt that things changed, that we had – if you like – switched gear and assumed a leadership role, and said ominously to me that she thought she knew what I’d say. In fact she was quite wrong and it is perhaps worth exploring why I think her ‘answer’ for me missed the point as far as this particular discussion was concerned. We were talking about paths to leadership and looking for that instance in one’s career which tipped the balance. I identified a moment in my life, a number of years ago, when anger at things that were going on around me and to me meant I accepted a role which looked purely diversionary; it took me out of the particular route I had been on, which had hit a fairly nasty brick wall. Out of that decision all kinds of unforeseen opportunities arose, which fairly rapidly I discovered gave me an influence I had not anticipated. So, this was a situation which I had constructed on the basis of a very conscious decision, even if its downstream consequences were not obvious to me at the time. That was the point at which I felt I changed gears, even if it could not have been described as a game-plan or a logical path to leadership.
In contrast Vivienne had expected me to name the time in 2009 (which was some time after my own nominated transition point) when I was awarded the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate for Europe. She was absolutely right that that prize has made a phenomenal difference to my visibility. I have never forgotten the seminar organiser who introduced me with the phrase that appearing on Desert Island Discs in the aftermath of the prize was my ‘main claim to fame’. Nevertheless, if that were so, it would be very sad! I’m a scientist not a celebrity.
Aside – a quick gender test. On the Desert Island Discs website, my luxury is listed (or was when I last looked) as a bat. This is, I hasten to say, a typo. My chosen luxury was actually a bath, to wash all that sand off. But….when people read it there appears to be a bifurcation in the population. I read ‘bat’ as that mammal that flaps around at night; others read it as a cricket bat or perhaps a pingpong or baseball bat. My impression is that women take the former position (as did the women in the Museum room because I did a quick check), but men tend to see it as a sports’ accessory.
I disagree with Vivienne that winning the prize was a true transition point, at least (to use that horrible phrase) on my own ‘inner journey’ to leadership or anything else. Of course the kind of visibility it temporarily conferred was very powerful and useful. Nevertheless, winning a prize is an external phenomenon; it says nothing about my own internal path. In talking to the women in the room last week, I felt we were discussing things within their control and which they could harness usefully. Having a prize tossed in your direction hardly fits that bill! I had a huge amount of fun associated with the prize – L’Oreal certainly know how to give a girl (and her husband) a good time in Paris for a week and put on a spectacular show for the prize-giving ceremony. I got lots of opportunities to get relaxed talking to the press and not grimacing in photographs, but I do not believe it had anything to do with whether or not I’m intrinsically a leader, only with how people perceive me.
Having tried to make a distinction between management and leadership, I suppose the point I am trying to make is that there is also a difference between being a leader and a role model. Being visible, as the L’Oreal prize made me, may have facilitated my becoming a role model to more women. I am aware that when I appeared on Desert Island Discs I got over 100 emails from total strangers giving me really positive messages about how the programme had affected them. It was very moving. As a leader, I think it did nothing because there is no follow through from such an event, no chance to check whether actually a difference had been made or how to take the next step to ensure there is. Celebrity (and being a role model is a pale imitation of this; see my earlier thoughts here) is being put on a pedestal as some icon, not doing anything that translates into change. I have just been reading an interview with Caroline Thompson, ex-Chief Operating Officer of the BBC, who says
That’s almost the most humbling and striking thing I have found in the past few months – the number of women in the BBC who have said they are sorry I am leaving because I had been a role model. When I didn’t get the job, I was sitting in a room on my own, and I was quite surprised by how much I felt that it’s such a shame to not have a woman. It was only then I realised it might have been important as a signal, rather than just thinking I would have done the job well. But I didn’t want to be appointed because I was a woman, I wanted to be appointed as the best candidate.
I think that sums up so much of what I feel. There is the passive, sitting there being a role model aspect and then there is the job well -done side of things. Being a leader absolutely needs the latter. I am aware I have become a role model. There is nothing I can do about that and if it helps women earlier in their careers to have an existence proof that women can rise up the ladder, that’s great (although take a look at this piece on role models by Curt Rice, where he cites evidence showing that ‘elite women are not the best role models for early career women’). However, this whole topic of role models is a dimension that I think will not resonate with most (white) men since such individuals exist all over the place for them. It is only for minorities – which includes BME men as well as women in STEM – that this issue is important and role models may need to be identified.
However leadership is something else. After last week’s discussion I know I am none the wiser myself – so probably the audience aren’t either – about paths to leadership or indeed whether I am a leader or not. I don’t have a formal job with a neat labeI, such as being a Head of Department confers, to which I can relate as ‘leader’. So, whatever my actions may look like to outsiders and however much possessing (or not) a label won’t affect how I act; regardless of whether I posess influence or not, the upshot for me is that leader is not a word with which I am comfortable.