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Thing 2: Leadership and Research

Updated: May 4, 2023

Dr Dawn Duke, Head of Researcher Development, Africa Research Excellence Fund (AREF)


A scrabble board with three words 'lead', 'team', and 'succeed' spelt out.
What does being a leader mean to you? ( Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

You as a Leader

Does that sound crazy? Sound far away? Perhaps unwanted? I have worked with many doctoral and early career researchers throughout the years, and leadership is one topic that almost all can feel uncomfortable with.


It may be the independent, curious, strong-willed and often actually quite stubborn nature that draws many into research, at the same time repels them from the idea of leadership – or at least the stereotypical hierarchical concept of leadership that most of us have been exposed to our whole lives. This was certainly true for me. I remember when I was early in my research career being very against the idea of ‘leadership’. I personally didn’t want to follow anyone, and equally didn’t want to have any ‘followers’ around me. I always preferred to be around independent-minded people. I thought this meant I wasn’t leadership material. But what I have since found out is that I was wrong about what real leadership is. What opened my eyes was hearing the quote ‘Leaders don’t create followers, they create future leaders’. Now that was something I could get on board with.


My values drive me to make a positive difference in this world, and I can’t do this alone. But I also want to nurture the individual ideas and talent of those around me, not create a world of ‘mini me’s’ (scary!!!). Realising that it is only through leadership that I could achieve this goal, and that I could do it without being the hierarchical dictator totally changed my mind about leadership. In this blog I hope to open your mind to the idea of leadership and ways in which you can act as a leader now.


Five Russian dolls lined up next to each other. The Russian dolls have red scarves, and red clothes with golden floral pattern.
Not that many mini me's... (Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash)

I know what you’re thinking. Maybe something like “Leadership is so far away from me right now. I am so very low on the research ladder.” To that I would say, ‘all researchers are leaders’. When you start to do novel research, you are shaping academic thought in your field. It may be just a small contribution, but with every presentation, every publication, your are influencing, changing and leading the way people see your academic area. Even just by joining 23Things you’re taking a step towards leadership, choosing to pursue new skills and build connections. You are becoming a research leader. But there is more you can do to develop your leadership skills.


Top tips to becoming the leader you want to be

  • Learn from others

What leaders do you admire and respect? These don’t have to be world leaders. They could be leaders in your field of research or leaders in your community or leaders in your school growing up. Leaders are everywhere. They are simply people who make change happen.


Who is that you have seen make things happen in a positive way? Have you taken the time to watch how they do it? How do they interact with those around them? What are the skills they have that make them positive leaders? What are the values they display?


As you, are thinking about becoming a leader yourself, it is worth watching leaders around you. Make note of attributes, skills and behaviours of effective leaders. This can help you understand how to be a more effective leader yourself.


POD DISCUSSION POINT

Think about the leaders you admire and list some of the skills they have. Do you have the same kinds of people in mind? Do you see the same skills?


Any of these leaders have inspired you?


  • Understand the range of skills involved in leadership

Leadership is not a skill in itself; to lead requires a range of skills. These include people-oriented skills such as influencing and persuasion, communication and presentations, problem-solving, evaluating different sources of information, understanding different contexts – the list goes on. Different situations will demand (and reward) different skills. A research leader will need specific knowledge and experience in their area, as well as project management skills and an awareness of their research landscape. For example, if you’re working on an international project, it’s important to understand the customs and culture of your team, the regulations that apply, and how to stay motivated even if you’re working together at great distances. Our blog last year on International Collaborations has some tips on this.


  • Identify and develop specific skills

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework can help you identify skills essential for researchers at the various stages of their research careers.


Reflect on your current skill level. What skills do you possess? What skills do you think you need to work on developing? This exercise can help you make a personal development plan to prepare you to be the leader you want to be.


  • Understand your core values

Values-led leadership is an incredibly powerful leadership model. In this model, the leader bases their vision and actions directly on the core values they hold. Understanding and articulating these values will help you to find work that matters to you and shape how you undertake it. For those you work with, it will help them to see the direction of travel, agree to shared expectations and forms of behaviour, and to gain better insight into when a project is going well (or going off course!). This is a video showing the power of aligning your values with your career and your leadership goals.


This is an exercise that will help you identify your core values, so that you can explicitly align them with your career vision and your leadership approach.


  • Think about what you can do NOW

People often mistake management for leadership. You do not need to manage people to act as a leader, and conversely managers are not necessarily leaders. Managers can make people change because they are their boss, but leaders inspire people to want to change. Even before you have management responsibility you can think of changes you want to make and you can act as a leader to inspire change. Below are just some examples of how doctoral and early career researchers can lead change.


Departmental/Institutional research culture

Research culture is the culture/environment in which you do research. It encompasses how the various people work together and support each other. Are you happy with the way people in your department work together. Is there something you think would be helpful to change? Perhaps starting a journal club or a seminar series would bring people together more and inspire shared learning and creativity? [Lots more on Research Culture coming up in Thing 3]


There are often many chances for doctoral and early career researchers to practice their leadership skills in shaping their local research environments. Some of these are formal, like becoming a official ‘representative’ of researchers at your stage for the department. Some are very informal, where you come up with ideas and use persuasive skills to get others on board. The Wellcome Trust has done a great deal of work on creating positive research cultures, and has great resources if this is an area you are interested in leading on.


Public engagement with research

Engaging people outside of research with your specific research and your research field is another fantastic leadership opportunity for all researchers. If there is one thing the pandemic taught us, it is that it is critical for researchers to better understand and work with the public is our research is going to have real world impact. It does no good to create a vaccine, if people don’t feel confident in taking it.


There are many ways to get started doing public engagement activities, all of which hone important communication and emotional intelligence skills that are critical to leadership. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement is a great place to start, if you are interested in this type of activity [Lots more on Public Engagement coming up in Thing 14]


These are just a couple of suggestions of areas where researcher at any stage can start to develop leadership skill and create real important change. There are many more both within and outside of academia. The important thing is to think about what you want to do, your vision for a different future, and then work with others to make small changes toward that vision.


What’s next?

We encourage you to meet your pod and begin with a discussion about leadership. What experience do you have or want to gain? What style of working do you enjoy? How do you envisage the pod working together?


And if you’re ready to take the next step in your leadership development, consider hunting out resources at your institution or through funders in your discipline or country. Some resources will be shared on the forum.


A wall with colours splashed on it. The word 'together' on the wall.
Working together with your pod (Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash)


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