Building Your Leadership Profile in Academia

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Mid-to senior-level academics have not only to deal with demands on their time and skills in terms of research, teaching, and administration, but must also demonstrate that they have significant leadership skills – that is, that they have the ability to lead others in response to the strategic requirements or mission of a given institution, often by making decisions in the face of multiple points of view.

If you decide that high-level leadership is for you, what are some of the key areas you can focus on to develop the necessary skills to build your leadership profile?

  1. Manage your relationships

Leadership skills are grounded in good people-management skills. Many academics, however, assume that because they might be introverted by nature they do not have good people-skills. But with few exceptions an academic job these days requires intensive interaction with people (students, colleagues, applicants, parents, the general public) from the very start of a career. Don’t discount all the goodwill and networks you have built up over the early years, as well as the abilities you have honed in negotiating, compromising, and working productively with colleagues. Emotional intelligence is just as important when you are operating at a higher level of leadership as it is in early career.

  1. Understand the mission and build capacity

High-level leadership in academia requires being signed up to the institutional mission, and taking action that further those institutional goals. Building capacity is a way of developing teams and expertise with those specific strategic goals in mind. For instance, rather than simply managing pre-existing groups, you might consider ways in which you can build powerful research teams yourself that address institutional priorities, or that develop your own and/or your colleagues’ research agenda. Consider how capacity might be built by looking at the research councils’ funding priorities. Start to think in terms of the longer term when you consider how to develop staffing. Above all, keep in mind the university’s stated priorities and build on the basis of these.

  1. Be financially savvy

Good leadership also means that you should understand the finances behind your operation. Even if mathematics isn’t your strong point, make sure you are competent in reading spreadsheets, working out percentages, and being a financially aware colleague. Leadership involves making sound decisions for the future – and these are almost always bound up with economic realities and priorities. If you educate yourself about the financial workings of the university more widely, and in particular, your unit, you will make yourself stand out as someone with the potential to be a sound and reliable leader.

  1. Provide creative solutions

Academic life is full of obstacles and difficulties to overcome. Part of becoming a good leader involves finding solutions to problems rather than simply reacting to them passively as they arise. Of course, not all problems have solutions, or simple ones, but it is possible to cultivate a creative and problem-solving attitude to any obstacle. As you move into more senior positions this will help others be confident in your abilities to steer them and your unit through any troubled waters ahead.

  1. Give and receive honest feedback

Those in leadership positions will of course be obliged to give feedback on colleagues’ performance periodically – and this is part of a good leader’s responsibilities to have a good grasp of the business of every team member (without micromanaging). Keep your feedback constructive and positive.

Above all, though, make sure the lines of communication are open in all directions. As you move into more senior positions it’s very easy to be seen as closed off from your peers or those less senior to you. Make sure you invite your team members directly to offer feedback to you on your own performance, and ask open questions about how you can improve. You might be surprised by what you hear.

And lastly, get support. Leadership roles can be very isolating, so make sure you have a good network of trusted colleagues to turn to for advice. Above all, remember that there is a world out there of friends and family – none of whom, thankfully, may think of you as their leader!

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