Scientists are called upon to show strong leadership all along the career ladder. Early on, they may need to steer decisions during group meetings, develop research collaborations, or organize student conferences. When the time comes, they're expected to become leaders in their labs and then in their fields, take charge of university courses, serve their institutions and professional organizations on committees and in leadership roles, and eventually, perhaps, lead a department or even a research institution.

Experts say it's a good idea not to wait too long to start developing those skills. “During your research career, you have to focus on your research, especially in the early stages, because it is hard to be a research leader if you don’t do good research. But even at the early stage it is beneficial to also be building leadership skills. They will help create opportunities and build collaborations and networks,” academic leadership expert Hugh Kearns writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Whatever role a researcher might be in, they can lead,” adds leadership expert Jeremy Mead.

Learning to be a successful leader, these experts say, isn't the same as learning to drive an automobile, where you use a set of taught techniques. It's finding your own way to lead via some basic attributes: integrity, commitment to the work, knowing and believing in yourself, and the ability to communicate your enthusiasm and develop good working relationships with other people.

Developing a vision


CREDIT: Jeremy Mead/Norfolk Light Ltd.
Jeremy Mead

What leaders have in common -- regardless of whether they are in a managerial role or just getting things done as part of a group -- is a clear sense of direction and an approach, idea, or project they feel deeply about. Such “personal leadership” can manifest when “someone identifies what is important to them and then takes action based on these values and beliefs,” writes Kearns, who co-runs a professional development training company called ThinkWell and is also a consultant in the Professional Development Unit at Flinders University, both of which are in Adelaide, Australia.

So, long before you take on a major leadership challenge, it's a good idea to work out your personal values and develop a clear personal vision. Start by writing down a list of possible values, suggests Mead, who worked as head of leadership development at Unilever and now runs his own leadership-development company, Norfolk Light, near Ipswich in the United Kingdom. Include everything you can think of, whether it applies to you or not. (You might prefer to start from an existing list, which you can find in Vitae’s booklet “The Leading Researcher," which lists Mead and Fiona Denney among the co-authors. See below. If you'd prefer to work from a longer values list, try this one.) Your list might include creativity, decisiveness, honesty, meaningful work, financial gain, and many others. “Then take a look and identify 10 which resonate with you,” Mead suggests.


CREDIT: Hugh Kearns
Hugh Kearns

Once you have a list of 10, pare it down even more, to two or three core values. A good way of deciding which values are most important to you, Mead says, is thinking about them in the context of something you really care about, such as overcoming the illness of a loved one or an obstacle in your research. If you could cure a loved one’s illness by giving up one value on the list, which of these would it be? Mead asks. Another approach to figuring out your core values, Kearns says, is to identify situations “where you were happy with the approaches and decisions you took and also ones where you weren’t so happy,” and figure out what values were decisive in each case. Yet another is to study people you admire to see what values they hold.

“Now, you can think of these values as the essence of you as a leader,” Mead says. “All your decisions are made from considering these values. If you are consistent then you will find that people will know what to expect of you, will anticipate your views, and you can start to lead even when you are not in the room.”

Next, go to work on your vision and goals. Again, Mead advises considering all the things you might strive for and assessing how they fit with the values you have already identified. And whatever you are seeking -- be it riches, scientific breakthroughs, or fame -- it's also important to consider how feasible your goals are in your current environment, Mead adds. You have to be realistic. Kearns agrees: “The first thing any scientist needs is a plausible idea or project.”

Engaging people

When you start to lead people, the self-analysis you've done will pay off. “There has to be a sense that the person themselves believes in the project or idea. If they are wishy-washy or not very committed to the idea themselves, then it will be very hard to bring other people along. The other people will have the concern that the project will collapse at the first obstacle or setback,” Kearns writes.


CREDIT: Fiona Denney
Fiona Denney

But believing and being committed to certain things isn't enough. It’s no good “sitting in your lab all day hoping good things will come to you. You have to get out of your office or lab and make connections with people,” Kearns says. To do this well, you need to be able to communicate your plans and ideas with enthusiasm. Fiona Denney, head of graduate development in the researcher development unit at King's College London’s Graduate School in the United Kingdom, advises using the Myers-Briggs personality indicator tool, or leadership coaching, to work out your preferred ways of communicating.

Being true to your values and having a clear vision doesn’t mean being rigid. You need to be willing to tweak your plans and ideas so that others are happy to follow along. Seek overlap between your vision and theirs. “Critical to having people follow your vision is to have them see it as theirs,” Mead says. “This comes about through really good listening to others and being genuinely open to changing your vision as a result of interactions with others.”

“You have to think about what is important to the other person. Is it the chance to be involved in an exciting project, to work with specific people, to get papers published, to enhance their career? Then you need to show how your project will help that person achieve their own goals,” Kearns writes.

Showing leadership in meetings

Meetings are one of the most important settings where you can weigh in with your ideas and vision, so make sure that you do not miss the opportunity.

Come to the meeting prepared, which will help you perform better -- and also help you avoid getting nervous. “Before going into any meeting [write] down what you want to achieve from the meeting, and [find] out what each of the other people in the meeting could do in order to contribute to that purpose,” Mead recommends. If possible, get a copy of the agenda so you can identify important items and give some thought to what you would like to say. “If you know the issues beforehand you can propose solutions or alternatives,” Kearns advises.

Kearns suggests speaking up early. “People who contribute early on, even just to agree with a point, tend to be seen as more involved and will be asked to contribute more. If you say nothing it will be assumed you have nothing to say,” he says. Mead advises listening to others and making sure any input you make is a positive contribution toward the meeting's goals.

Inspiring respect

To be a leader, you also need to inspire respect and trust. A big part of that is demonstrating competence. “As a leader, you will have to convince people to support your ideas, to fund your projects, to back your judgement. If you are not seen as a highly competent researcher you will not get this support and trust,” Kearns writes. But while “respect comes from a sense of competence,” Mead says, “building trust requires more than this. It requires a leader to be open about what they are doing, and how and why they are doing it, and to seek openness from others.” This openness, Mead adds, means discussing feelings as well as logic, and revealing your weaknesses as well as your strengths.

It also helps to have charisma, a quality that is hard to define and probably just as hard to learn. But it's not necessary to be deeply inspirational to lead -- or to make lots of noise. “A quiet leader can be just as powerful as a loud one,” says Denney, who develops leadership programs for researchers.

“I think most people have unrealistic ideas about leadership,” Kearns says. “They tend to think they have to be Nelson Mandela or some such inspirational character. In reality leadership is much more mundane: for example, preparing for your meeting, communicating with people, and listening,” he adds. “The good news … is that although we can’t all be Nelson Mandela, we can improve our basic skills.”

Reading suggestions and Further Resources

Fiona Denney recommends that anyone who wants to learn more about leadership read Effective Leadership by John Adair and The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

Jeremy Mead recommends The Cult of the Leader by Christopher Bones.

Vitae publishes a booklet called “The Leading Researcher.”

Vitae's Website includes a Leadership Development section.

Sharon Ann Holgate is a freelance science writer and broadcaster in the United Kingdom.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1200034