What does it take to be a good leader?

Leader: scientific or project

In my mind before trying to answer this question I have to define leader. Right now I have two —possibly conflicting— leaders in mind. One is a scientific leader in the sense of a leader in a specific scientific discipline. The other is a leader who can organize and lead projects, either scientific ones (across labs for example) or what I want to call revolutionary projects. With such a grandiose name I am trying to cover the type of projects that can help change a country. However, in reality this second type of leader is closer to administrative roles in leading academic institutions, like the chair of a department.

Good leader

So, how do we say that a leader is a good leader?

For the project leader (second type), I believe that the key is that a good leader gets the job done. The job might have some flaws, but this type of leader can lead a team to produce results. The next aspect you might want to request from a good leader is that they get the job done efficiently (time, resources). However, I would argue that another important characteristic is reducing (minimizing if we were to consider it a mathematical function) internal tensions (frictions).

As for the scientific leader, I struggle more to define it. Is a good scientific leader someone that produces good ideas and publishes them in a timely manner? Is it measured by their ability to secure research funds? Or is it that during their lifetime they had one brilliant idea that changed a field? Or is it just a measure of the number of citations?

Common aspects

I think that one of the most important skills both types of leaders should have is the ability to write clearly. If you cannot write clearly, then you cannot communicate your ideas properly. Without communicating your ideas, you cannot convince anyone that your research work is interesting or that your project is going to succeed.

Additionally, I think that the ability to listen to others and synthesize their ideas is important for both types of leaders. If you cannot listen to others, you will be left alone pretty soon. But you cannot be involved in meetings all day long, so being able to quickly understand and keep the key points others are telling you (what I called synthesize) will be very helpful.

I guess that another important trait is being able to manage some important details secretly but still being able to discuss them with others at some level where you get useful feedback. Said in a different way, you want to test if your idea sounds good but you don’t want to spill the beans and let everyone jump on it before you are ready.

Diverging aspects

Furthermore, I strongly believe that frequent communication helps reduce the internal frictions. You have to tell what is the next step in the plan, keep everyone involved, but you also have to listen to what others are telling you. While I think that frequent communication helps a lot in a lab environment or when leading a project, again I am not sure that it is something a good scientific leader has. But I know that it is something I aspire to accomplish.

I then wonder if good oral communication skills are required for good leaders. I think that the answer is a definite yes for good scientific leaders, who after all frequently expose their work at conferences. But a project leader might not need such type of skill. Sure, they give speeches here and there but probably talk less in front of audiences.

I am certainly separating the ability to talk one-on-one or one-to-a-small-group (like in a table) from good oral communication skills. For me the latter are related to talking in front of audiences while the former are strongly based on the person’s social skills.

How to become a good leader?

That is really the question that I am currently asking myself.

For writing, I think that practicing is very important. That is one of the key reasons why I like to blog and do so in English. As for listening to others, well, I am not sure how to proceed. The secrecy aspect of things is certainly one of my weakest points.

Frequent communication is something that I think I am decent at doing and the key for me is good email managing skills. I am obviously practicing by trying to write shorter (more concise) emails and keeping my inbox as empty as possible following most of the tips given on Inbox Zero for Life by Keith Rarick.

But overall, I wonder if I should take some courses beyond my scientific discipline of interest if I want to be a good leader. Writing? Maybe. I tried a Coursera course and failed to keep up during the comprehensive exam study season. Some kind of managing projects class? Hm…

Maybe you also need to learn to be patient to be a good leader? After all, my motivation takes a big hit when I have to deal with people I would rather not. I am also not so patient with those that complain without proposing alternatives.

Well, I guess that I am at the stage where I am seeking all the feedback I can get.

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