Leadership by Gravitas or Passion?

A couple of years ago I blogged about my feelings about leadership and role models. The difference is clear and whereas then I felt OK about being considered one of the latter I had issues with regarding myself as a genuine leader. I was brought to reconsider the topic by a request to talk about leadership in academic science by the London Business School. They brought up an international party of executives to Cambridge for the day, and I kicked things off for them during their visit. They were from business, the law and the like. Neither academics nor scientists, a morning in the Cavendish must have been quite strange for them, as they wandered amongst the exhibits in the museum we house and had a quick look at some laboratory space with a student of mine.

My job was to try and explain my leadership style in bringing out the best in students within a system that is much less structured than their various worlds appear to be. I can’t tell my students what the rules are, because the rules of research mean don’t follow rules (although do follow protocols, prior art etc): the aim has to be to look at things from different angles. I can’t give precise suggestions for how to be innovative, because bright ideas don’t come from doing what other people have done before. But academic science has always thrived on the unconventional, the maverick and the wacky – a message that may not sit comfortably with all professional spheres.

I find it easier to answer questions about my personal style of working with PhD students than the more abstract idea of ‘leadership’ per se. But my thoughts on leadership were helped on their way by the gift of a book written by one of the London Business School experts. This was The I of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing by Nigel Nicholson. Unable to compare this with any other book on leadership, because I’ve never read one (or on management come to that) I found it an interesting read not least because its basic message seemed to be it’s horses for courses. In other words, there is no single recipe for success in leadership. To take an example currently close to my heart, Winston Churchill was an excellent war-time leader but languished at other times and basically failed to deliver in his more peaceful briefs.

So from the book I got the messages that the goal must be to work out what needs doing and what your way of doing it is, find some trusted allies with whom you can discuss the challenges and your provisional solutions and get on with the job. Doing nothing may be the right thing at times; at other times it may be hopelessly wrong. It all sounds so simple! But simple or not, at least it feels more plausible as a way of tackling things than having to follow set patterns of behaviour regardless both of one’s own character and the particulars of the situation and the organisation in which one works.

In order to achieve one’s aims, naturally one has to carry other people along with you. Thinking about this takes me back to the issue of how, leader or not, one can be most effective on committees and I think the answer is the same: you have to work out your own way of doing this and it may depend on committee dynamics as well as your personality. What works in one place may not work in another. I am reminded of one committee of senior professors from around the country I attended when still quite junior. One member in particular stands out in my mind because his demeanour was so unlike mine was or ever could be. Completely confident in his own position, he talked very slowly, precisely and at great length, turning his whole body as he looked all round the table at each of us in turn as he spoke. I’m sure he felt this was an effective strategy that would make his words carry great weight. For me, all it did was irritate me intensely whilst simultaneously making me feel my own style must be woefully inadequate and unpersuasive.

With the passage of years I have come to realise how wrong I probably was in believing other people liked such a tendentious style. Furthermore, whilst eye contact is probably good, his style seemed so artificially contrived as to counteract anything positive that spontaneity might have achieved. Once again, it’s probably horses for courses. Some people may believe speaking ponderously implies gravitas, as the very words may suggest, but others may be less fooled by stylistic performance than by content. I still believe that rubbish is rubbish however delivered. My own style is always liable to be labelled with that inconvenient word ‘passionate’ (see here and the ensuing comments for a debate about this word as applied to female scientists), possibly even more dangerously ’emotional’, often ‘self-deprecating’ and ‘good-humoured’ (as the thank you card from a recently relinquished committee repeatedly described me in the kind words of expressed). I think there are worse things to be.

Whatever, I am who I am and my style has to be what works for me and I guess the same is true for everyone. Worry about the content first and foremost; make sure you’re articulate, coherent and audible as well as factually well-prepared and aware of other people’s sticking points. Beyond that, leadership by charisma or gravitas may be effective, but sometimes it may also be dangerous by being persuasive without content.

This entry was posted in Leadership, Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Leadership by Gravitas or Passion?

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for this Athene. I’m due to take over as Dept. Head in a few weeks and have been wondering what my style will be. Reading your article has persuaded me to not to take the route of “style over substance”. For whatever words I come up with I’m sure I will be judged more for my ability to make things happen and for the soundness of the decisions I make. Will try to read said book so thanks for the link.

Comments are closed.