SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
12 May 2016
Volume 17 Issue 5

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I Have a Really Good Idea But No One Is Listening! How Leadership Skills Can Re-energize Your Career

Alistair Brown, University of Manitoba, and Samuel Haddad, Baylor University, on behalf of the SETAC Career Development Leadership Sub-committee

Leadership skillsMore often than not, the manager of your academic group, government department or business does not have the time to interact with individuals on a daily basis. So much so that we may jest about what our superior actually brings to the table. However, securing funds for projects, building collaboration, maximizing networking opportunities (e.g., annual conferences and guest lectures) and human resource responsibilities all need to be pursued by individuals in management. Such endeavors require an extraordinary amount of time. There is no greater frustration for senior management than to constantly hand-hold their subordinates. Consequently, there are opportunities for team members to help facilitate the day-to-day operations by leading from the middle.

Typically, when individuals think of developing leadership skills, the idea of management jumps to the forefront. Indeed, the very nature of the word “leadership” is nebulous. For instance, if you ask your co-worker to identify important leadership skills, they will invariably think of the skills of a superior they know before considering their own contribution or skill set. Leading from the middle hinges on developing influence and fostering stewardship within your group. These traits are exemplified by individuals who:

  1. Consistently deliver high quality results that raise the bar when it comes to performance
  2. Work to make the job of management easier and the jobs of their colleagues more fluid
  3. Motivate those around them. Good leaders foster an environment of growth and development through leading by example
  4. Give the organization a future. Today’s workers who can implement current ideas, identify and define problems, get along with the people they work with and value consistency will become tomorrow’s leaders.

Leadership in a globalized society comes from an essential team framework. Individuals exuding the qualities above are also very good at contributing to a team. All individuals, including those “natural” leaders and those not so blessed, need to develop team-oriented leadership values to achieve some level of success, and hopefully significance. However, some leadership values need clarification before we can take ownership over our inclusion and importance in facilitating a successful working environment. The SETAC Leadership group (sub-committee of the Career Development Committee) suggests that influence and stewardship are key factors to authentic maximal development in the world of science.

Influence is single-handedly the most important value on the planet when it comes to being a leader. Individuals choose to follow leaders because of the influence they exude.

However, there is a pervading business myth that says “when I get the position, then I’ll have influence.” Leading by title rather than influence is primarily achieved by authority. Authority does not intrinsically translate to influence, by contrast leadership does. The best example of using influence to lead is in the case of volunteering. Volunteers have absolutely no reason to submit to your authority and you have no leverage to use with them. They have chosen to be there because they believe in the mission of the project. If you push too hard, volunteers may drop off the team. If your people skills are weak, volunteers will not want to interact with you. Moreover, if you cannot communicate, other volunteers won’t know your expectations. All of the above factors affect your influence. Thus, the most natural way to begin leading is to work on your ability to influence others. A person who has never led before should try to influence one other person, and then a person who develops influence should attempt to build a team. Influence is the single greatest value that has the potential of taking a team from success to significance. You don’t believe me? Influence was used in the title of this article to peak your interest enough to read it.

Stewardship is a principle synonymous with self (vision and work ethic) and team (humility and empowerment). Being aware of future skills and goals is important, but you will soon find yourself antsy or unfulfilled if you lose current focus. Goals are essentially visions with a timeline, and they necessitate deliverables, including research results, publications or policy decisions. Goals will fluctuate with the seasons, but the vision must remain the same and in focus. Good stewardship is achieved by understanding your current strengths and weaknesses, which results in character development. Within a team setting, the character trait of humility is invariably tied to stewardship. A humble leader will facilitate the development of a team that is capable of offering differing perspectives through which results develop. Often, some of the greatest questions and comments come from freshly spun individuals who see things from different angles rather than familiar eyes. Effective leaders empower their team to offer those perspectives in an environment of safety, transparency and empathy. With a team on board, results will come; and with these results comes the reputation of empowerment that attracts others to these successes.

We are often taught that there exists an algorithm in our professional lives: survival-> stability-> success-> significance. Results start to come in, collaborations are made at international meetings, and success occurs. But going from success to success isn’t the end of the road, and this is where leadership values separate some teams from the rest of the pack. Significant groups consistently turn their opportunities into gold, with members exposed to great experiences and free to move laterally in conjunction with other groups – opportunities arise. No matter what, over the years, success seems to follow, a reputation is built, projects become completed, scientific questions are answered and more are generated. Transparency is paramount, and confident leaders (including graduate students, early career professionals and seasoned scientists) are churned through the machine known as the “significant group.” This is impossible without the perpetuation of a culture that encourages a morally safe environment and fosters leadership from the middle. Stewardship and influence are the key values that are required before this algorithm is fulfilled. Be strong, get stronger, be trained, get more training; a great leader will never stop learning or leading by example.

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