Leader of the pack: who has the power to change research cultures?

The idea of “leadership” for a researcher might make you cringe – surely leadership is the sort of corporate waffle people go into academia to get away from?

Or maybe it feels very far away – it’s suggestive of people sitting at the top of organisations, conferred leadership status by the authority of their position.

But anyone who wants to shape their discipline or change the environment for people working in research will need to think about developing personal leadership skills.

This matters in two ways. First, there’s a well-established need for more equal access to leadership and a more diverse range of leaders – as well as more diverse ways to be a leader. Second, in a distributed model in which researchers or research teams operate fairly independently of central control, research requires simple day-to-day leadership of teams, projects and relationships. Leaders act as role models for others – and so leadership in research shapes the collective expectation and experience of research.

“Academic life is a series of trade-offs” says Kate Woodthorpe, senior lecturer at the University of Bath and author of Survive and Thrive in Academia. “And you need to find your sense of personal achievement and purpose as well as doing things for your institution”. Thinking about leadership as an emerging set of personal values and purpose rather than a point to be reached in the future means that leadership can be exercised right away, and developed throughout an academic career.

Right here, right now

“I think some of my leadership qualities were forged in the fire of my PhD” says Rochelle Rowe, academic development lead at University College London. “I was pursuing an idea (the history of black beauty culture) that few of my colleagues had heard of. There’s something very entrepreneurial about the entire process: recruiting others to your vision, and sustaining it through challenges.”

“Everyone can be a research leader, regardless of their seniority” says Nishan Canarajah, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Bristol and incoming vice chancellor of the University of Leicester. But, he adds, research leadership means different things at different points in your career. PhD students show leadership in their peer community by exploring what their research means, how it fits in their field and advocating for its significance.

For Josie Fraser, deputy vice chancellor at the Open University, early-career researchers always need to be thinking “what’s next?” What’s needed to take my research to the next level? It could involve thinking about impact work, knowledge exchange, or understanding how funding works in your university, so you can make a successful bid. But rather than mastering these skills because they’re expected, or to tick them off a list, it’s about picking priorities and making them meaningful in the context of a particular research agenda – and your own life.

The lives of others

As your research develops, says Nishan, “research leadership isn’t about you personally any more, it’s about how you define a research programme for people you manage, how you create opportunities for other people, and how you ensure your work is financially sustainable.”

Rochelle agrees. “Research leadership extends beyond thought leadership on a particular subject, into the ability to inspire and nurture the talented people around you.” Effective leadership in any field, but particularly in creative environments like academia, depends on people trusting and believing in their leaders – and depends on a leader who can take positive and critical feedback from the people around them.

Finding a good mentor can make a big difference to your research career. Josie cautions that your mentor “doesn’t always have to be in your field, or someone who thinks how you think – in fact, it might be better if they don’t.” Someone working in a different way, or on a different career path could give a new perspective on your work and your options.

Josie also offers practical advice on building relationships with people across a university: get to know people who work in the finance department, or people who support researchers to write grants. “Buy them a coffee. Get them to talk to you about what they wish all the other early career researchers did!” Making friends across your university can give you a better sense of how everything works, and help you fit into, and eventually shape, your environment.

The world outside your window

For Nishan, research leadership is also about putting your university in a wider context, and making sure that it can be globally competitive. Competing with the best universities in the world requires “investment at multiple levels”, including creating more early career research positions and more permanent roles, and helping senior academics have time out for research. For an aspiring leader, building a personal understanding of the global significance and impact of a field of research, as well as supporting staff in positions of authority to do the same, can be useful.

Building relationships in an industry linked to a research area can also create leadership opportunities. Prosper, a new Research England-funded programme based at the University of Liverpool, is bringing employers and universities together to jointly build development opportunities for early-career researchers. The programme also hopes to remind early-career researchers that leadership opportunities aren’t restricted to academia. Anthony Hollander, pro-vice-chancellor for research and impact at the University of Liverpool aims to cultivate a “leaky border” between academia and industry. Prosper could also open up opportunities for researchers who want to progress their work, but aren’t mobile. If you’re looking for new skills and experience but need to live in north-west England, being able to smoothly move between industry and a university could be a good way of gaining those skills.

Deciding how to manage the challenges

Narratives of personal leadership tend to push systemic issues aside in favour of foregrounding personal responsibility and resilience. But issues of equality and inclusion, work-life balance and expectations of mobility, if unaddressed, can create additional barriers to building a research career.

Josie believes that senior academics can demonstrate the importance of wide access to leadership through “translating the culture of leadership that you want through your organisation.” Visibly and seriously working with BAME staff networks or LGBTQ+ organisations in your university can make clear to your commitment to equality and build important relationships, which involve listening to marginalised communities and working on what they need.

Anthony understands the importance of experiencing different research environments – he did his PhD in Bristol and then moved to McGill University in Montreal. But he also thinks that we need to “break that mould which works against people who aren’t mobile.” He believes leaders should “challenge the norm and find new ways of giving people experience even if they stay in one geographical location.”

“Some academics and heads of department model constant availability – late night emails, being contactable on holidays – this sets an unrealistic expectation for others,” says Kate Woodthorpe. “A good line manager will be open to a conversation about prioritising – nobody can work at full capacity for more than a few months at a time and maintain their interest and productivity.”

However researchers choose to respond to their environment – whether critical, strategic or passive – will depend on their personal lives and the people in leadership positions around them, and may change at different points in a career. But actively building relationships and thinking about how research works is almost certainly the first step towards playing a role in changing the research landscape.

Join us at Wonkfest on 5 November 2019 from 10:45-11:30am to hear Interfolio founder Steve Goldenberg, Janet Metcalfe (Vitae), Joe Cooper (Imperial College London), and Annette Bramley (N8 Partnership) discuss how to best support the research workforce. 

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