Politicians, Leadership and Academia

We now have a new Prime Minister. A woman. I well remember  a young relative saying to me as Margaret Thatcher stood down ‘Was it possible to have a male prime minister?’ Well yes, and history tells us this is rather commoner than a woman.  Over the past couple of weeks looking at our political ‘leaders’ fail to lead has been an unedifying process. We have to hope things improve from here on. Both the main parties have at times looked as if they were more interested in stabbing each other in the back (or possibly even the front) than leading. In the light of this it is worth considering what leadership in academia might look like.  Is it any better? Not simply how to be a VC, leading from the very top, but how to run a research group or some more modest sized entity than an entire university. Taking on such roles is a necessary first step in a scientist’s ladder of independence, but acadene does precious little to train anyone for it.

So, aside from not wielding a knife in an inappropriate way, what do I think such ECR leaders need to know?  These questions aren’t asked often enough as people naively are expected simply to step up to the mark. Again, one might make comparisons with politicians. I would draw the parallel with a politician good on the hustings or in the cut and thrust of debate but who hasn’t the slightest idea what to do once elected. Sound familiar? As a scientist making the transition to group leader, it is no longer enough to be an expert in your chosen field, to know exactly which knobs to turn on the apparatus, or which software to run in order to get the best results from a delicate experiment. Once one is in charge of other people a whole range of new skills are required but not often taught except by accidental example – good or bad. This isn’t even about those teaching skills of the sort the TEF might favour (if the HE bill progresses next week through a rapidly changing Parliament) but people skills, project management and the ability to get the best out of a disparate team. (In contrast training in grant-writing seems frequently to be on offer, although comments I have heard about some of these courses are not always complimentary.)

These skills don’t come naturally to many exceptionally smart people. Indeed many people completely fail to notice that being smart is not sufficient to turn you into a good group leader. Too often the inability of some academics to make this transition is unhelpfully stereotyped with barbed comments about someone ‘being on the spectrum’ or the old chestnut about the mathematician who is an extrovert because they look at your shoes not their own. We should do better in supporting ECR’s who are trying to find their feet (no pun intended) in this new sphere of activity. If we leave them to sink or swim we are potentially condemning their students to inadequate support, advice or even scope of project.

Being an extrovert, who looks like they ‘like’ people is no guarantee of success. Being apparently full of exuberant confidence may not help the shyer student get to grips with their PhD or win over a recalcitrant technician. Introverts (who, according to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, are where much power currently resides) may equally fail to engage with a fresh student who is ‘full of it’, without the it they appear to be full of actually amounting to much. Has anyone seen a university – or funder’s – ­course on Emotional Intelligence? Such a course should help a fresh PI to consider their own character, their strengths and weaknesses and how these may impact on those around them if they are to enable others to reach their full potential. Or how about a course on how to haggle over equipment prices or to construct and deliver persuasive arguments to convince a head of department that they really do need new lab space?

Too often we exist in an environment where (s)he who shouts loudest gets; where the size of grants is the primary factor in success, not the development of people. The TEF may be going to attempt to improve our undergraduate teaching, but what about the education of graduate students, which can be rather hit and miss? This isn’t as simple as measuring how many PhDs are produced, any more than the TEF should determine excellence based on how many first class degrees an institution awards. Since measurement of intangible outcomes are so challenging, I am not advocating an attempt to devise some metric regarding PhD training, but I am suggesting student training should be factored into skills regarded as important by departmental management. Such considerations would also facilitate an institutional culture which is inclusive: it would then be easier to spot PIs who permit bullying or harassment or who exhibit such behaviours themselves. Indeed, I think promotion criteria should consider whether a candidate has actually facilitated such an inclusive culture. My University expects to see a personal statement about an applicant’s research and teaching as part of the promotion process, but there is no necessity – although some applicants do include such information – to discuss how a PI contributes to developing their teams.

So what might relevant ‘leadership’ training consist of? I’m not convinced compulsory attendance at some formal lectures on the topic would help. But perhaps some small group role plays, some discussion of strategies senior colleagues (with a respected pedigree in this field) have found constructive, and appropriate mentoring could all help. One-to-one coaching would be common in industry but much less so, at least at junior levels, in academia. One might ask why this is so.

It doesn’t take much to show up our politicians’ weaknesses, but academia should not be smug that it is better when it comes to leadership. It is just differently inadequate all too often.


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2 Responses to Politicians, Leadership and Academia

  1. Joseph Conlon says:

    The Royal Society runs (or maybe funds) a Leadership Effectiveness course which addresses precisely these issues. It’s three days at Chicheley Hall and taught by academics from Imperial Business School, and is free to those holding RS fellowships and awards (so mostly URFs, but also DHFs and holders of Wolfson awards).

    It’s good – and also the chance to talk reflectively with others at similar career stages and exchange experiences.

  2. J says:

    We offer in addition to some general leadership programmes some programmes based in Faculties supporting ECRs in writing a fellowship and reflecting on and developing their leadership skills. ECRs tend to be very open to developing these skills and using them. And while not calling it Emotional Intelligence the sentiment/essence of this is covered in these programmes. In my experience it is often the more senior academics that need to learn the skills and change their thinking/behavior as well as the structures of academia that need to change so the young ECRs can actually use their leadership skills and not be squashed (by the same old metrics and bad management)

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