Does Leadership Need to be More Touchy-Feely?

If our sector is to see more minorities rise through the ranks to positions of power, indeed if any sector is to achieve this and go on, for instance, to remove the typical gender pay gap, then inclusive leadership needs to be the norm not an unusual surprise. A recent article published by the Harvard Business Review reflected on this and looked at what traits make an effective, inclusive leader who is able to bring out the best in individuals and therefore in the whole team/organisation. They also highlighted what a leader defective on this front might look like. The following – negative – statement about such a (business) person could describe many in academia.

“He can be very direct and overpowering which limits the ability of those around him to contribute to meetings or participate in conversations.”

I could not but help noticing the pronoun used, which might be compared with a similar statement describing characteristics of a successful, inclusive leader in the article:

“[This leader] will openly ask about information that she is not aware of. She demonstrates a humble unpretentious work manner. This puts others at ease, enabling them to speak out and voice their opinions, which she values.”

No comment was made about the pronoun in this case either. We should not stereotype and I could not tell from the text whether the distinction was intentional or accidental – or indeed whether the author had even taken it on board. These statements were, apparently, taken verbatim in the course of interviews in the Deloitte study which formed the basis of the article.

So, let us remove both pronouns and stay with the safer ‘they’ and consider the situation in academia. ‘Leaders’ in this case might be anyone from vice chancellors to group leaders with a group of three. The same rules apply, though; a little humility often comes in useful. As an ECR group leader I know I was always acutely aware that pretty soon during their projects my PhD students knew more about their topic than I did, even if I had the benefit of experience. This latter made me better at identifying, for instance, the false excitement of an interesting-looking artefact in an electron micrograph, but certainly did not mean I was on top of all the literature or the vagaries of instrumentation that the students had had to master. Experience should be distinguished from knowledge; both should work together to progress a project and to ensure that a freshly-minted doctor has learned many skills and not just facts.

And, this same doctor should also have come through with confidence intact and unscathed by group meetings, attendance at conferences or anything else. Too often this is not the case. The group leader can only do so much to ‘protect’ a minority student from aggression or harassment at a conference, particularly if they themselves are not present, but they can make sure that they provide an opportunity for bad experiences to be thoroughly discussed and support offered (possibly even post-event action). A clear message needs to be given that, academia may be competitive, but there are better ways of succeeding than trampling on others.

Unfortunately too many students learn by example, watching those in positions of power who have, as indicated above, become ‘direct and overpowering’, who believe that their success can only come from making sure others fail. Because academia rewards ‘success’, defined in a narrow way by papers in top journals, and grants or prizes won, unless a group leader spells out just how toxic an atmosphere can be created by being fooled into thinking that that is the only way to behave and progress, how can an aspiring PhD student know any better? Too often their world may look like dog eats dog is the model for survival. This is part of the working environment that needs to be eradicated if the best are to thrive, and not merely clones of those already at the top of the pecking order (as opposed to those at the top of their game).

There will be those who somehow believe that this ultra-competitive atmosphere is what leads to good outcomes. One should be wary of swallowing such a belief unchecked. In the business world, the HBR article spelled out,

“Teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.”

In other words, if you give everyone a chance to contribute to a project there will be a better outcome. I see every reason to believe the same is true in academia. If a team is made up of people who only listen to people who look and speak like them, groupthink may prevent some healthy lateral thinking. We have all come across the naïve question – in a seminar perhaps – which, approaching the problem from an unexpected angle, suddenly throws well-accepted assumptions into doubt. One of the joys and challenges of being a teacher lies in exactly that, the student who – failing to have grasped the standard tropes – asks a wacky question that perturbs the teacher’s pat answers. At undergraduate level it may cause the teacher to think a lot harder but probably won’t throw over decades, if not centuries, of received wisdom. In research, that may well not be true. It is important that any research group is open enough that the junior members, the ones who don’t look or sound like the boss, feel safe challenging the status quo.

So, academic leaders should read and digest what inclusive leadership looks like in business and work out how it applies to them. It is hard to see what the downside is. Perpetuating ‘people like me’ in research teams is invariably going to overlook some very talented individuals who then leave the system in disgust and despair. We, as a sector, need to stop thinking that what has gone before – in terms of judgement and promotion – is bound to be the best way to proceed and use evidence (as good scientists should) to devise ways of actually getting the best outcomes for the sector. Inclusive leadership needs not just to be left to the business world or regarded as a ‘touchy feely’ thing with no home in our universities. We can do better. We must do better.

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