In academia, becoming a good leader or an apt mentor is a skill most often acquired through work and life experiences. Few professors/researchers receive real training on how to manage human resources, how to resolve conflicts, how to rally a community around shared values and vision, or how to create a healthy work environment. Instead, we are trained and selected for research excellence and teaching/communication skills (to a varying degree) but land in a job where we will mostly manage a SME, spending way more time doing administration and human resource management than research. Yet, professors frequently have to write lengthy documents on why and how they will act as champions in Equity/Diversity/Inclusion, mental health and excellence for their trainees, as if we had all the extra resources in the world or could clone ourselves three times. Most of us can’t afford to hire multiple research associates / lab managers to help us create the perfect unbiased benevolent lab team and culture, but there are small/short-time actions that we can do to support our trainees’ development.
In our labs, trainees are young (and not so young) adults working together. In the 20’s-30’s life gets busy with them: moves, relationships, identity definition, health and family issues, financial precariousness, etc. Topping these situations, in the lab, they often develop friendships and antagonisms, face challenges and envy, have different culture, personalities or work strategies, which can result in tensions. As a PI, it is easy to turn a blind eye and not get involved, you know, we are already so busy with our committees, form filling, grants’ writing, emails (!!!). But we can, and probably must, for our own sake, contribute to give our trainees the skills to become positive leaders in order to maintain a healthy work environment.
As a young prof managing a young lab, this train of thoughts occupied my mind lately. I proposed to my lab to do an atelier on leadership (inspired by https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/leadership-envelopes) to work towards improving ourselves as mentors and leaders. Five strengths were chosen because they are believed to be important for positive leadership and mentorship.
Here is a summary of the discussion on the topic that ensued:
#1 Emotional intelligence
This one is mitigated. To manage a group of human requires to be able to sense the individual and collective mood: is it tense? is it collaborative? does someone need help? do I need to act to modify a behaviour? when should I be the good cop or the bad cop? Having a strong emotional intelligence is very helpful yet, it is very costly, personally. I have to remind myself to draw the line and limit the impact of my work on my personal life. This is a constant struggle, a balance to be found.
#2 Active listening
How many times are we not really listening but preparing an answer? Human communication is plagued by perception mistakes, loss in translation, and silent / body language cues. An active listener does not need to talk a lot, to dominate the discussion, but is able to identify the key messages and modulate a response accordingly.
#3 Model the way
Most of us don’t see ourselves as leaders. Impostor syndrome is rampant in academia and contributes to undermine the self-confidence to take initiatives and assume novel ideas. Leadership is not limited to specific job positions or to our work environment, it comes with all our actions. Self-deprecation is probably the more common negative leadership action that we all take part in and probably one of the easiest to fix.
#4 The three sieves
This one is fairly famous and broad in application, especially important in Homo sapiens‘ interactions. Is the comment or fact you are saying true? (as in did you witness it personally?) Is it positive? And is it useful? If you can’t answer positively to all these questions, you should keep it to yourself.
#5 Inspire a shared vision
From my long two years and almost seven months in this position (^^), I have the feeling that the next generation of researchers needs to see their values align with their research subject and work environment. Amidst the great many challenges of the 2020s, accelerating global change, disruption of democracies by war and far-right movements, loss of important rights for women (just to name a few), the youth are thirsty to spend their time and energy to make a difference in a safe and fertile work environment. When we as professors successfully align our research vision of excellence and ethics with our trainees’, we give our group an extra layer of determination and intention.
So, in summary, it was a nice experiment that we will repeat and try with different topics. And in your opinion, what are the skills of a positive leader?