Through self-leadership, early career academics can take control of their careers, be proactive and set their own goals
Leadership is something of a buzzword these days, a concept which has seeped into academia from the corporate world and seems to come in an unending array of flavours: academic, research, thought, moral, business, strategic, and so on. It's the sort of thing people highlight in their job documents; it crops up as an interview question.
But what might leadership mean to early career academics, many of whom don't lead the projects they work on, let alone teams or departments? What might it mean if, like many of the researchers we work with, you struggle with the feeling that the higher education system is a game, the rules of which are difficult to navigate and set by others?
These questions come from our on-going work with researchers at the University of Cambridge, where we are using the idea of self-leadership as a means of helping them to navigate their careers and personal development.
Self-leadership isn't our term. Richard Bolden, professor of leadership and management at Bristol Business School and colleagues found that self-leadership, defined in part as "not looking for leadership from others", is something academics recognise as a core feature of their professional identities.
So, what does self-leadership mean for academics? We have conceptualised it in two ways. First, self-leadership means a proactive approach to getting the most out of ourselves and those with whom we interact. Note that the responsibility is on us to take the initiative and not be purely selfish in our intent. Second, self-leadership entails an outward-looking mindset – being conscious and careful in sharing our ideas and opening up our networks.
Getting the most out of everyone
Let's take those concepts in turn. How do we develop a proactive approach to getting the most out of ourselves and those around us? One way is, paradoxically, by putting ourselves to one side and trying to understand our colleagues' reality.
For example, when we're supervising or collaborating with others, we often jump to conclusions about why they are doing things differently or not performing to our expected standards. They're too lazy or incompetent or distracted to do the job properly; they don't like or trust or respect me; they're trying to beat me. Research on asymmetric insight shows that we're astonishingly quick to form judgements about other peoples' intentions and, when we do, remarkably over-confident that we are right.
This means that we need to take care to inquire, not presume, where the other person is coming from. Try asking a colleague, "What's happening for you right now?" Listen to what they say. Sounds easy, right? People tell us all the time that they do this as a matter of course. But our first self-leadership hypothesis is that finding out what's really happening for the other person is uncommon and takes conscious discipline.
Finding out what's important to another person at a particular moment in time is not giving up your right to think or act differently, but it's ultimately a more open, effective starting point for your conversations and subsequent working relationship.
Our second concept is about sharing and building networks. The best tactic when networking is to ditch the pitch – that is, avoid those dreaded, self-absorbed elevator pitches which countless sources insist you must have.
Instead, building rapport and establishing a relationship with others involves putting our desired outcome(s) to the back of our minds. That way, we don't distort the conversation by manoeuvring unsubtly to what we really want to discuss, only partially listening to what the other person is saying while we wait for the moment to pounce.
It's true that we need to have a hoped-for outcome in mind when networking, eg being considered for a job, starting a collaborative project, gaining access to resources, etc. The initial motive for approaching someone is often self-interest; it's partly how we decide whom to approach.
But what if, once we had started the conversation, we let our self-interest go and genuinely inquired about the other person's reality? What if we listened carefully to what motivates them and what they are trying to achieve? With this knowledge, it's so much easier to identify shared interests, align yourself with others' aspirations, and make effective job applications.
This is the second self-leadership hypothesis: sometimes, you can best achieve your goal by putting others' aspirations first – but only if you know what those are.
Start something and watch what happens
Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, indirectly suggests how we could put self-leadership into practice today. Her advice is to "start something and watch what happens". The "something" could be as simple as answering an email that, under normal circumstances, you'd delete immediately. Or it could be something more time-consuming, such as volunteering to give a talk or applying for a job you might not feel ready for. It might mean setting aside perfectionist tendencies or the desire to be right. It could even be giving yourself permission to do the unthinkable – take a holiday.
The key point is for us to start something, even if we can't fully figure out where we're going. If we pay attention to how we feel and observe what happens after we've started, we can analyse events and assess our next steps. What we can't do is keep on waiting until we're 100% sure or until others lead us to the "right" answer. That kind of attitude, though superficially reassuring, doesn't ultimately fit with an academic culture which prizes self-leadership.
[This piece was co-written with Dr Sharon Saunders, Researcher Development Consultant at the University of Cambridge, and it also appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network.]