Content by Tabea Gerlach, attendee at the Leadership in Academia workshop in May 2022.

Before coming into this workshop, I had little idea of the skills or characteristics a leader should bring.

I had seen so many examples of bad leadership in academia and thought that it is merely impossible for a PhD student to make any changes due to the imbalance of power. You can say that I was frustrated by the leadership culture in research academia and thought that only the top hierarchy ranks could make a change, but my hopes of that were close to zero.

The workshop started with a few online sessions about the basics of leadership theory: Responsibility, codes and models, good and bad behaviours and skills. Some points made sense immediately or I recognised them from observations in the past, others were completely new. But the most important part of it was that I was now able to name them all!

Equipped with this knowledge, I met researchers who came from all parts of the UK and a variety of hierarchy levels to talk about one topic: How can we improve leadership in academia?

Guided by the enthusiastic team of Daren, Sarah, Marcus, Nadia and Will, we evaluated our freshly gained knowledge, we discussed and we shared experiences in a mix of interactive tasks, small group and panel discussions. Unsurprisingly, there were worse experiences than I could imagine, but unexpectedly, the atmosphere in the workshop was positive, motivational and even energetic!

Now, that was definitely new to me! In my experience, people complain about their leader and in the next moment, they show the exact behaviour that they had just complained about. Sounds familiar? But that was the exact point: Change can start at the top, but it definitely starts within! We are all leaders whether it is a formal position or not. So, you have to start making a change if you want to see change! We might be familiar with this concept but how do we do it and where do we start?

My top 6 take-away messages from the workshop:

  1. Lead by example! Follow your own values and do not tolerate unacceptable behaviour.
  2. Open the space for transparent communication! Give feedback and ask for feedback in return, this is the only way to improve.
  3. Do the right thing, not the easy one! Don’t avoid uncomfortable conversations or decisions. This is your job!
  4. Trust your team! Make people feel valued and let them know that their work has meaning!
  5. Develop others! Don’t be afraid to ask for help! You don’t have to know it all, you have to empower others to learn. It will make them gain confidence and spread responsibilities.
  6. Promote diversity! A diverse team is more communicative and thus more productive. The individuals are your foundation. Build the framework around the individuals’ strengths.

On top of all this, I now know where my strengths and weaknesses are and what I have to practice right now! And if I ever get lost during my journey, I have a community to guide me back on track, motivate me and make me remember that we are tackling this together.

Change happens now and starts with every single one of us.

I can feel the academic research culture changing! Can you?