Leaders – what are they good for?

Cat herding (Photo sourced from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ceardach/)

Everyone seems to think that there’s a dearth of academic research leadership.

From the Group of Eight (Go8) in Australia to the most modest research universities, this seems to be a common and constant refrain.

Can this desirable species of academic be that scarce? Are they endangered? Do we need breeding populations in academic zoos?*

Once upon a time, while I was cloistered with a pride of executive research leader-types, I thought a lot about this. Partly out of necessity because we were pinned by the exhortive gaze of the facilitator, and partly because it was a good opportunity for revisiting my own experiences of ‘being led’.

What is good research leadership? How do you define, produce, and replicate it?

What did I find most effective in academic leaders when I was an early career researcher (ECR) and trying to find my feet in the shifting sands of academia?

I’ll tell you about that soon, but what I realised when I started on this post was this: there are two sets of ‘leaders’ I appreciated, and they drew from a pool of similar, but not identical, traits. They also operated at different levels and had contrasting goals.

1. Academic leader (e.g. Head of School, Director of Research)

I think these kinds of leaders are doing the perfect job when about the same number of people hate them as love them. They’re not out to make friends; they have to manage and lead their unit, to keep it out of the red, and – if at all possible – squeeze in some vision and longer-term planning. They have to lead, and they need to have enough people behind them to make their decisions stick.

It’s a tough job and, in my experience, the best kind of people for this job are those who don’t want it. Studies have found that randomly chosen leaders can work better than purposefully elected ones, which puts the machinations about who’d be a better Head of School in perspective.

What I appreciate in particular about the good academic leaders I’ve known:

  • They’re willing to listen. Doesn’t mean they’ll be your champion or change their minds, but at least they’re willing to consider other points of view. You need to be able to do the same.
  • They’re savvy and strategic. They know the academic game and they play it to position their unit/school in the best possible way. They know how to drag their people – perhaps kicking and screaming – into better situations and towards opportunities. They can convey the ‘short-term pain for long-term gain’ lesson to you and are up front about the game itself. Most importantly, they don’t use weasel words to explain why (bad) things are happening. For example, I’d want my academic leader to be able to say: “Central wants us to deliver on this bottom-line for the School. We will fight it, but we may lose. To pacify them, we need to be seen to comply and we can do this with least damage (and fast recovery) by…” rather than “There’s nothing we can do; Central wants their cut. Don’t blame me!”
  • They’re tapped into a broader network of institutional and academic developments. I like my leaders to know what’s happening out there and able to defuse grand stupidity with evidence. Good academic leaders know what their own institution is doing compared with like universities elsewhere, and can argue effectively against impending structural follies (e.g. If there’s some deranged confection of a performance metric coming down the line, they’d be able to say: “This kind of thing doesn’t work, as demonstrated by what happened at X Uni. If what you want is increased productivity from our researchers, this is what works better, and this is what we’ll be doing…”). To me, this is using the Power of a Prof for the greater good.

2. Research leader (e.g. Lead Investigator, project leader, mentor)

Research leaders, who don’t have to be in executive managerial roles, are slightly different beasts. Their domain is simultaneously more narrow and much wider.

‘What the hey?!’ you might say (and quite rightly, too).

Let me explain:

Research leaders’ priorities consist of their projects and people – potential, current, and sometimes past. The budgets they have to balance (and sometimes fight for) are usually from the grants or tenders they’ve been awarded. They don’t have to deal with a whole department full of researchers in an involved way; they just need to make sure ‘their people’ are productive and happy. Much of the time, research leaders are getting on with their projects and building up to the next ones. This often involves mentoring early career academics as potential research team members and, in time and hopefully, research leaders themselves.

At the same time, good research leaders are very much engaged with the international playing field and state of their discipline. Even though their particular project may deal with a very specialised niche within a niche, they are able to function at higher levels, as savvy representatives of a field. They are often people who have vision and context about an area’s direction or developments, even if what they say may not be immediately embraced.

I think that one of the best things about memorable research leaders is their ability to stir things up constructively: get people thinking and questioning such that researchers in that area actively engage by writing back to the ideas or considering these issues when they next conceive of some research.

Most of it is not through overt citation or sitting at their leader’s feet; it’s more the intellectual charisma and – at times – tidal changes that these leaders bring about. Just recently, I was talking to a very senior research executive and I mentioned one of my favourite academics as a possible visitor. I was surprised (and delighted) to see this senior colleague light up and declare, “That would be fantastic! He’s my hero!”. It was very much a moment where I realised that everyone has a ‘Prof’s Prof’ – favourite academics who inspire and challenge.

Research leaders I’ve appreciated can sometimes be thought selfish because they are out to protect the interests of their research team or cluster from budget cuts or ‘redeployment’. They often have to retain the integrity of their projects, even though particular institutional contexts mean that corners are being cut.


To return my initial question about leaders and what they are good for:

Really good leaders in either category – academic or research – are essential and rare. They have different demands, and the temperaments of academics who seek either kind of role need to be varied, too. The categories of academic and research leaders don’t always stay separated, and academic leaders without research credentials are sometimes thought to be less worthy.

A cache of good academic and research leaders can alter the tone of entire institutions and their research potential. Even a small number can bring about big changes; I’ve seen just one make a huge difference.

For me, working with good academic research leaders makes being part of the university game absolutely worth it.


* As far as I know, there are yet to be academic zoos, but with sandpits, circuses and ‘makefests’ in the university/research mix these days (thanks, @frootle), they can’t be far away. Right behind the research pinatas, perhaps?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to Leaders – what are they good for?

  1. pikir kool says:

    :) you missed out on “being able to empower and inspire people to do research” like the late steve jobs did.

    i do agree that good leaders are rare. kinda easy to find people who wanna lead, but to find those who *can* lead? well, that’s gonna be tough.

    the thing is, being a leader, as you had pointed out, requires a spectrum of different personalities. the financier, the mediator, the listener etc. the dominance of one can disrupt the other.

    for instance, a leader who’s good at pitching ideas to officials and investors might be driven, but may not be that understanding. he’s good at being a financier, but terrible at being a listener.

    maybe you can devise a training for research leaders? :)

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for the comment – agree with all you say! Being able to wear the hats of the different demands of leadership is a big ask, and not many can do it well. I’ve known academics who are excellent with the pitch, as you say, but not so good with following through on the actual work or sustaining the networks. I think there can be an element of ‘shiny things’ syndrome happening there.

      Training for research leaders is an excellent and incredibly tricky idea! Let me incubate that for a bit… ;)

  2. Not sure if you’ve heard of a recent book on the topic called ‘Herding Cats: Being advice to aspiring academics and research leaders’ by Geoff Garett and Graeme Davies. It also includes quotes from 50 academic and research leaders about their experiences and challenges, non-attributed so quite fun to guess who said what! Really interesting to learn about the perspective and challenges of leaders in our sector.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I found out about this book just after I’d scheduled this post! Thought I’d go back and read it later, so thanks for the reminder. Is exactly what I need at the moment for some other projects, too.

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