Why do scientists need leadership training?

scientists need leadership training too

When we get asked about Barefoot Thinking and the work we do, the question often arises “why do scientists need leadership training?” 

Answering this question takes us back over 14 years to the Trinity Conference Centre in beautiful rural Connecticut.

It is 9:00 am on the 13th June 2009 in a beautiful workshop space at Trinity. Martin and I are about to deliver 2 days of leadership training to the 2009 Leopold Leadership Program Fellows, a North America programme for 18 pre-tenure environmental scientists from the USA, Canada and Mexico run by the Woods Institute at Stanford University. 

We’ve prepared well but have no idea how it will go. Martin is a former scientist and has familiarity with the work and career stage of the 18 people sat in front of us. I do not, but do have a background in organic agriculture and food production, management consultancy and  creativity training.

I can tell that we are both feeling nervous. How will it work? Will what we have to offer land with them?

Fortunately, during the 2 days it became clear that we were connecting with the group and that they were engaging with the mix of tools, experiential and enquiry based learning and interactive sessions we were offering. We had some excellent conversations and very positive feedback. In fact, we would stay in contact with several of the group for many years to come.

We did not know it at the time, but those 2 days in Connecticut and 2 more with the same group in Washington DC in September were the beginning of what would turn out to be a continuing programme of work and the main focus of our professional practice over the next 14 years. It has led us to work with scientists and organisations in North and South America, Europe and the UK. 

Now almost 15 years since we started preparing for that first session, I’m reflecting on the whole topic of leadership training for scientists.

This was a selected group of very smart people, highly trained and well set for successful careers. Why would they need leadership training?

scientists need leadership training too

I think that there are actually 2 questions to be answered here:

1) Why do scientists need leadership skills?
2) Why do scientists need leadership training?

Let’s start with the first question:

Why do scientists need leadership skills?

Before we answer that question, let’s look what we mean by ‘Leadership’. Whereas once leadership was about commanding people (often in the military sense) using higher authority in very heirachical organisations, it is now seen much more as an influencing and enabling skill. How to influence the people you work with to be committed to shared values and goals? How to enable them to realise their potential, and how to get other individuals, teams and organisations to buy in to what you need?

Some time ago people’s image of a scientist might well have been of someone probably in a laboratory who pursued their own narrow field of research virtually unaided and who occasionally surfaced to make announcements about their findings.

This is rarely true now. Most scientists work in teams, form collaborations and partnerships with others and seek to bring on the people they work with and bring a variety of resources into their work – including finance, space and equipment, data, time and knowledge. In every one of these activities, leadership features and the degree of leadership skills can make a real difference to the experience and the outcome.

Why do scientists need leadership training?

So, leadership skills are important but scientists tend to be clever people who’ve had plenty of education. Why can’t they just figure it out?

Because many of the skills required are not usually found in the undergraduate, postgraduate or post doctoral science curriculum – nor are they necessary to be a successful student or lab researcher. Therefore scientists need leadership training.

What skills are we talking about here? Skills like thinking strategically, getting others to buy in to your ideas and needs, building networks for resources and support, enabling clear communication and effective feedback, bringing on the people you work with and being able to see where and the ability to self-assess as to how you want to develop your Leadership skills.

Some scientists will naturally develop these skills over time through learning by doing. The problem is that scientists frequently find themselves in leadership roles very early in their careers before much learning by doing has taken place.

I remember a marine scientist saying to me “I was still an early career researcher when I found myself leading a multi-partner European research project with a million pound budget without much of an idea of what I was supposed to do. I was flying blind.”

Since that June day in 2009, we’ve gone to work with over two thousand scientists from primarily the environmental nexus (Marine, freshwater, biodiversity, climate, energy and food). 

Over time we’ve seen them improve their leadership skills in 6 areas:

  1. Thinking more strategically about their vision, goals, projects, ideas and challenges to clarify direction and priorities
  2. Getting buy-in for their vision, projects, proposals and requirements from inside and outside their organisation
  3. Using constructive feedback to communicate key information and enable change to happen
  4. Coaching and mentoring people to help them develop their potential
  5. Making better use of their time to focus on what’s important
  6. Feeling more confident about themselves and their abilities in leadership roles

So scientists need leadership training too. Find out more about leadership training for scientists here.

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