Careers, Guest blog

Guest Blog – Is Leadership Important In Science?

Blog from Dr Yvonne Couch

Reading Time: 9 minutes

You find me today at peak existential crisis. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone today and volunteered to go to a three-hour session run by a leadership expert. If nothing else I figured it might help me be better. I did quite well. I failed the psychopath test (a good thing), found details that 95% of the population miss (duh – scientist) but also learned a bunch of stuff. The reason for the existential crisis is that, as a life-long imposter, it is distressing to establish that you’re actually quite a good leader. That you’ve been ticking all the right boxes and thinking all the right things. I have no idea what to do with this information, I am genuinely baffled. So I shall do what I always think is best with unwanted information, I shall get it out of my head and into yours.

There is a ton of literature out there on all of this. And I mean a TON. It’s ridiculous. And the majority of it is common sense and largely boils down to “don’t be a [insert expletive of choice here]”. But that’s not how you make the big bucks, you make the big bucks by taking that sentence and chopping it into categories and colour coding and graphing those categories. Essentially giving you different styles in which not to be a [re-insert expletive here].

So today (sorry it’s taken me an age to get to that sentence and I know you all love it) we’re going to talk about leadership in the context of research. We’ll discuss the different styles of leadership and how you might apply them to your everyday interactions with the people you might encounter in a research job.

Let’s start with the two major principles I took away from today. Things I wish I could hammer into many of the people I have interacted with over the years.

First, management is not leadership. Corralling people into a line and getting them to do a bunch of tasks is not leading it is managing. This is potentially problematic for science and especially early career researchers but more on that later.

Second, leadership is a selfless act. You are not being a good leader because it makes you look good, or makes you shiny or wins you a gold star. You are being a good leader because that is the most effective way to get the best out of others, and out of your team. This is likely to make you uncomfortable at times, or even much of the time, but your own comfort is supposed to be set aside for the greater good. And theoretically if everything runs smoothly and you’re a great and inspiring leader then your job should be easier because your team should work well together.

Right. Laws laid down. Let’s get to it. According to today’s dude, who was amazing, there are four main styles of leadership. Technically there are five but we’re ignoring negotiating if anyone from a fancy company is listening. We’ll go through them, I’ll give you some examples of when they’re useful and what I’ve used them for.

Directive. Most of them do what they say on the tin but some are more obvious than others. This is one of those. A directive style of leadership is useful when you have someone new. Basically you give them instructions OR you tell them the answers to their questions. This approach is largely what I take with undergrads who start in the lab. They generally don’t know which end of a pipette is up so I start by telling them ‘this is how you do x, you need to think about y’. Essentially you’re teaching them to do the job they’ve come to do. You might also briefly adopt it with new post-docs who will need to know a lot of really basic and boring stuff like how to order things and who’s in charge of the finances. But the key to directive leadership is that you cannot maintain people under it. You cannot keep giving the students the instructions and the answers because they will never learn. You will end up with someone who you believe to be ignorant but the only reason you believe that is because you’ve not adapted your own leadership style as their capacity to learn progressed.

Change. You can see now how some of them are way less self-explanatory, right? New students are likely to be highly motivated but less able, they are keen but they have no skills. As you teach them skills they become more able but, and this is especially prevalent in science, they are still not an expert. They know which end of a pipette is up but they still don’t know how to control an experiment. This might cause them to become a bit demotivated. Now you’ve got someone on your hands who is a bit useless and feels low about it. At this point there is nothing to be gained by continuing to give them instructions, it will consume enormous amounts of your time and won’t allow them to progress. You need to become more supportive. You need to access your emotional intelligence and interact with them on a more person level. Explain that it’s ok, they’re learning and mistakes happen and they should persist because you believe in them (assuming that you do of course, I have had ones I definitely didn’t).

Leadership lolly pops empowering, inspiring, lead change, share vision

Leadership in science encompasses the ability to empower a diverse team and create an inclusive culture that provides supportive energy and commitment so everyone can contribute their best.

Supportive. Supporting someone who has low abilities and low motivation is relatively easy. You’ll often find that as students gain more confidence in the skills they’re learning, that their motivation picks up. The supportive leadership style is for those at the other end of the spectrum. I must confess to feeling stuck in this corner a lot recently. It’s something I suspect a lot of mid-career researchers experience. Supportive leadership is beneficial for those of us who have plenty of ability, but little motivation. Got the skills, don’t got the drive. And here is where we end up with major failures in scientific leadership. Realising that someone is low in motivation is a challenge but then establishing enough of a rapport with that person to bring them out of their funk is even more difficult. Scientists as a whole are not naturally good with people. We are good with data. But to be an effective leader you need to be supportive because at some point your team of highly skilled individuals is likely to get demotivated and there’s only so much cake and gin you can buy them before you have to just sit them down and say ‘what do you want to get out of this and how can we make that happen together’.

When I have students in the lab this is the stage they go through with me when I’m pushing them to think about their own experiments. My supportive style simply involves asking them lots of questions. Instead of saying ‘this is how you do it’ I ask them ‘ok how would you do that’. I do that annoying thing that all students hate in their teachers which is to ask them back the question they just asked me. They hate it but honestly, it helps them grow. More importantly it helps them get to the next stage…

Empowering. Finally, we get to the leadership style which is almost the easiest for the leaders. It’s what you do at the end of the project rotation or the end of the PhD. You have someone who is now highly skilled and highly motivated and you basically let them be free. You work with them to establish the best ways to achieve what they want to achieve within the parameters of your overall goal.

The whole idea of leadership is that you want all your team members to be skilled and motivated. You want to be able to just sit back and be an empowering leader all the time. But in reality people within a team will vary in terms of their needs, and even an individual person will vary over time. So as an effective leader you need to adapt to the changing circumstances.

Here’s the issue with this approach, in particular for early career researchers. The best way to illustrate this is with an example. If I get an intermediate fellowship and manage to secure money for a PhD student then I have, potentially, two people working for me. But the thing is it’s my fellowship. So what I want them to be doing is working well to achieve my goals. And if I wind up with someone with lots of motivation and no ability, I’m going to have to spend a lot of my limited time training them. If I end up with someone with lots of ability but no motivation then I’m going to have to spend a lot of my limited time supporting them. And all of this is going to affect my career.

The key factor here is time. My career is dependent on them also doing a good job. Publish or perish, blah blah blah. So where in that model is there scope for good and empathic leadership? ‘Just hire better people’ I hear some of you cry but again, the trouble with this industry is that it often requires a very niche set of skills. Your pickings may be limited. You are not the Boston Consulting Group with the pick of any graduate you care to name. You are a researcher who wants someone who can do something really specific so you may be down to a list of only four or five people. At which point your chances of getting someone who instantly requires you to just sit back and watch them churn out Nature papers is pretty minimal.

So what can we do about this conundrum? As per usual I have no idea. I think scientists in general do not get enough leadership and mentoring training. And at supposedly excellent academic institutions there is often very little incentive to teach well so you can be an appalling leader, as long as you make good papers and bring in money. Which means that before we can start training future scientists to be good leaders, we need to incentivise good leadership. If we see others being poor leaders whilst still being promoted, still getting funding and still achieving accolades there is no motivation for us to be any better.

Now I’ve established I’m probably quite a good leader because I do move from a directive to an empowering leadership style with those under me, and that I do adjust my approach according to people’s needs, I just need someone to actually tell me what I’m good at and then I reckon I could take something over. Not sure what, but something big.

Dr Yvonne Couch


Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.



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