The most desired qualities of academic leaders


I am exploring the topic of leadership for almost 6 years now, roughly since the Top 500 Innovators training at Stanford University that our group took in 2012. We were taught then how important the effective leadership is for the success of any organization, in that case of universities and similar research institutions.

The concept of leadership cannot exists without people, and I am lucky to work closely with a group of smart and dedicated students. They taught me that my actions and behavior can indeed influence their activities, performance and sometimes even mood. It was humbling, and over time, I understood how much more there is to learn and practice…

It is hard not to notice that the internet is flooded with leadership advice aimed at entrepreneurs. Thing is, even though academia is a bit different from the business environment, it still needs to embrace challenges of the modern world and apply suitable leadership practices. I look at trends and challenges of leadership, especially in the context of youngest generations, but there are hundreds of posts and articles being published on this topic every single day. It is just counterproductive (and impossible) to read everything.

Earlier this year Google updated its list of 10 behaviors that characterize best managers. There are so many lessons on this list to be learned by scholars. Especially those working closely with or supervising other researchers. Let’s discuss this list in the context of academic leadership.

Academic Leader…

Is a good coach

Being a research supervisor means that you have an knowledge that you share to the benefit of your students. Good mentor knows his expertise and stays within his competences. It is important to stay away from giving advice in areas that you have no prior experience. You might look competent on the short run, but the truth will always surface. This is not the way to build trust in the team.

To support a research team, it is necessary to understand that everyone has different needs and expectations. The only way is to find out how your team members work best, and adjust your coaching to match their work style. This requires to develop empathy to understand when the team need to be nurtured, and when it needs to be pushed towards the desired goal.

Empowers team and does not micromanage

Empowering sounds simple, but it is tricky. In reality it is often difficult to let go and allow others to think for themselves. After years of working in trenches, the transition to supervising position is challenging. Not everyone finds the new role enjoyable, as it usually means less hands-on research, more meetings, and much more administrative tasks.

Becoming leader in academic environment requires getting rid of the whole I-can-do-it-better mindset. Empowerment means that young researches need to be allowed to make their own decisions and take responsibility for these decisions. This demands substantial degree of trust and willingness to share valuable information. Great mentors know that information empowers, while the lousy ones think that sharing undermines their position. Truth is, only if young researchers will be allowed to fail, they will learn from their own mistakes and produce above average results. So, no more ready answers and no more micromanaging.  Empowering, just like leadership, is a skill and like every other skill it can be learned and practiced. So, there is hope for all of us.

Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being of all members

Progressing towards PhD title is often stressful and lonely endeavor. Thing is, the most effective research is done in a collaborative environment. The group can support themselves and find solutions to individual member’s problems. It is now generally accepted that sparks of creativity most often fly in diverse groups. That is why many top world universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, made collaboration and team work very important part of their curriculums.

There are various ways to create inclusive academic environment. It is important to get to know team members a bit better on personal level. Flexibility with regulations and deadlines is also recommended, for example allowing working from home if necessary (actually, unless you need a lab, this is not a big deal in scientific research). Encourage collaboration between team members, for example facilitate teaching substitutions or help them working together on some small research project.

Is productive and results-oriented

Daily survival in academic environment is especially challenging for people without clear goals and laser-like focus.

Various dangers lurk around corners, awaiting everyone about to embark on a journey towards a PhD degree. Working on thesis can quickly take a student on an endless voyage towards the horizon of knowledge. The more she knows, the more she finds to learn, study, and understand. It is so easy to lose the way. At the same time, a scientist must avoid focusing solely on “the next paper” or “the next report” and keep an eye on larger goals (like writing thesis). The research is done for a purpose, and it is not wise to forget what this purpose it.

The guidance is especially valuable here, as the supervisor is often the one looking and at the compass and steer the research in the right direction. Pushing towards doing the right things.

Is a good communicator — listens and shares information

Staying silent and listening allow other people to share information about their work issues, and sometimes even their personal life. Being good at listening increases ones trustworthiness, and at the same time helps to gather information. This is important because it is impossible to direct young researchers effectively without understanding of their situation and needs.

Only a fool mentor will rush in and start speaking and acting without discernment. Yet, I find this the most difficult skill to develop. Shut up and listen.

Supports career development and discusses performance

Many young researches do not know what is expected of them at work. They need a clear direction on what is expected of them, how much and when. They need to be held accountable for results and should be provided with regular feedback on their performance. They need supervisors that are approachable, responsive, and  available whenever mentee needs some support.

An academic leader should be a role model and mentor. The long-term relationship between research supervisor and his mentees means that he will have substantial influence on their career development. It is not only about honing research skills. It is also about explaining nuances of academic life. It requires frank and direct conversations about long-term aims, as well as short-term performance.

Has a clear vision/strategy for the team

It is just impossible for a PhD student to start with a clear well-thought career and research plan. This is a job of his research supervisor. Student might have some plans and expectations, but usually their understanding of academic reality is rather vague. So he needs to rely on advice of his older peers.

Great leader is focused on the future looking for potential opportunities for his team. He plans research, dissemination, collaboration and, at the same time, develops his team in order to prepare it for upcoming opportunities.

Has key technical skills to help advise the team

One cannot drive the research team without fundamental understanding of the studies being done. True, after several years the competency level of a PhD student on a particular topic might exceed his supervisor’s. Still, collaboration and effective leading are possible only if both sides understand each other needs and expectations. What I found, this puts quite a burden on the supervisor, who needs to improve his expertise constantly in order to keep up with his team. Especially, if he works with a group of PhD students carrying on different research projects.

Collaborates across Google Faculties

Academic environment is very rigid. Quite often, interaction is limited and the level of secrecy between research teams is high, especially between groups studying similar topics. Academic leaders need to focus on building agile and energized research networks. The times of science cultivated in solitude are over.

Unhealthy competition between research groups prohibits collaboration and advancement. It is not easy to bulid rapport and establish trust between teams, but in the long term, this might be only way to ensure progress in XXI century.

Is a strong decision maker

Any significant progress requires action, and action always follows a firm decision. Academic environment is especially susceptible to procrastination that expresses itself in unending ongoing research. Endless studying is very addictive, and it is as bad as perfectionism.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to establish effective collaboration between business and academic environments. Time seems to be an unlimited resource at universities, there is no harm in one more read paper or one more conducted experiment. At the same time, entrepreneurs desire quick and correct answers, here and now. They cannot afford waiting.

This is why academic environment, now more then ever, would benefit from convinced leaders capable of making competent and strong decisions. Academia no longer has luxury of being slow and perfect. I do not necessarily appreciate that fact, but the world changes very fast nowadays, and the only way for us is to adapt.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

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