Thoughts on leadership
Updated: Jul 29, 2021
In my first two years in my post as Assistant Professor, I have been fine accomplishing most of my goals individually without relying on a team to support me. However, after preparing my ESRC New Investigator grant application and looking up project management courses that I plan to take as part of my training, I begin to see that successfully managing a research lab with postdoctoral, PhD students, research assistants require stepping into a leadership role that I wonder whether many of us academics are prepared for.
So this year I have begun thinking more seriously about leadership. Especially, the past year of observing how policy makers and management handled the pandemic has got me reflect more on what kind of leader I want to be. During this pandemic, some people were probably called into challenging situations where they had to lead and a handful of them might have gone "Oh shit, I wasn't prepared for this". So, I thought to myself, setting out some clear principles seems like a good plan to prepare myself in case those situations ever happen to me. Luckily, supervising students provide me some opportunities to experiment with a few leadership skills like communicating goals, preparing training, delegating tasks, giving feedback, etc.
Many of the things I share below are drawn from my experiences of growing up in a family of female leaders. After the Vietnam-US war, garment manufacturing for foreign partners was one of the key components to revive Vietnamese economy at the time. Fortunately for my family, all my aunts and my mother possessed skills that were essential for production and manufacturing. They could sew; they had commercial and negotiation skills; and they could understand finance. So naturally, that was our family business for a long time; my grandfather ran a garment manufacturing factory in District 10 of Ho Chi Minh City. When he retired, my mother took over his position as chairwoman at age 29. I was 4 at the time.
I grew up seeing my mother as a leader. From her, I learn how and how NOT to be as a leader.
A leader has to lead
I believe there are a lot of pressures to be a leader. Essentially, everyone in your team will rely on you to make the final decision, and that can be very stressful. Under stress, some leaders might choose the action of abandoning their roles, leaving their team members confused and uncertain.
I have come to learn that being a leader means knowing when it is your decision to make and make it. This involves recognising that no decision is 100% perfect, understanding the pros and cons of different options, making the most informed choice given the time and information available, and being willing to take responsibilities for the consequences that come with that choice.
There are times when it is OK to delay decisions until relevant information is gathered. Informed decisions are always better than ones made on a whim. You also don't want to be wishy-washy; if you have to go back on a decision you have made, it is important that changes are also informed. While taking the time to make those decisions, however, I think a leader needs to also communicate to their team a timeframe in which decisions will be make to help them manage their expectations.
A leader is different from a manager
I remember growing up with my mom, I saw her stressed all the time. I remember one time when my mom was very upset about certain tasks not being done correctly, my dad sat down with her and asked her: "You need to decide: do you want to be a leader or do you want to be a manager?" The question was very interesting to me; what is the difference? My dad taught me that a leader can lead through setting a vision and goals for the followers, but a manager will deal with the day-to-day of how those vision and goals are met. At the time, my mom was elected a leader but she was doing a manager's jobs.
From this story, I learn that, to be a leader, you need to commit to your role just as much as your team members' needing to commit to their roles. It can be challenging at time: the need to control and the desire to do everything or have things done in a certain way. But, I think it is important to be clear with oneself exactly what the leadership role involves before taking it on. If you are not clear about that beforehand, you risk trying to do the jobs that are supposed to be done by other team members. Not only you infringe upon their autonomy to do their job, you create more stress for yourself.
A leader knows when to follow
This might sound contradictory, but I learn that a leader knows when to be a follower. I do not believe a leader has to know everything. If a leader needs to know everything, they will not need a team. Without a team, there is no leader.
I believe a good leader needs to know their team - who knows what - so that when the time comes that certain knowledge or skills are needed, a good leader will know who to consult. They will listen and they will follow.
A leader has to be fair
I said "has to" because I do not think there is any way a leader can get away from this. Being fair can mean a lot of things. To me, it is very basic: giving credit where it is due and paying people for the task they have completed. There was one story again from my mother that was inspiring to me:
Originally, my grandfather's factory was a cooperative - members earn from monthly profits based on their capital contribution. However, there are months when there was no profit to be shared. My grandfather intended to go with the model: no profit, no one gets anything. That is also fair - one way of being fair. But my mother suggested: "People did the work and they need to know they will be paid monthly to feed their family; they will work better with that reassurance". Since then, my mom has committed to always paying her workers, profits or not, and always paying them on time. Until this day, she is very proud that she has never been late to paying her workers.
Whatever form "payment" comes in, people need to be paid for the job they has completed. I have learned that is Being Fair 101, and to be a good leader is to start with that basic decency.