Content by Abigail Hay, attendee at the Leadership in Academia workshop in May 2022.

I left knowing, instead of wondering if, I was doing a good job.

A fortnight has passed since I spent two days in the beautiful Cumberland Lodge nestled in the heart of Windsor Great Park. In that fortnight, I have had a lot of time to reflect on what I took away from the UKRN “Leadership in Academia” workshop (particularly since I spent the entire platinum jubilee bank holiday week confined to my house having finally succumbed to covid).

One of the themes we were encouraged to consider as part of understanding leadership in academia was how “incentives” encourage certain behaviours. The current academic system places metrics such as number of papers and grants at the top of the criteria for promotion and job security. Often, but not always, this competitive culture results in good leadership behaviours being left behind, undervalued, and unrewarded. I found myself asking the question, should we really be looking up to individuals just based on these numbers, or should we be valuing those who contribute to making academia a better place to work by displaying empathy, encouraging balance and developing good people as well as good researchers. Of course, research quality must still be rewarded but not at the expense of good leadership skills.

Previously, this is where my brain would have checked out and I would be left feeling like the situation was hopeless. I knew what I wanted to happen but what could I do to change anything about the system for the better? It turns out, the answer is actually quite simple… be the change you want to see. Good leaders make people feel good about themselves and about their work. In turn, those people value good leadership skills and practice them. Slowly but surely values change and the system begins to change with it. Yes, we still need to press for change at the top, but by embodying the change we want to see we can all play a part in improving the academic system as a whole. I came away with my thinking on what I could do reframed: change isn’t just a top down process, and good leaders making change can be anyone at any stage in their careers.

But, to be a good leader, to be the change you wish to see, the first step is leading yourself. This means knowing yourself intimately and completely, identifying your weaknesses and tackling them head on, and being able to look inwards to understand why you do what you do. This is not an easy process and requires a safe space in which you feel supported in enacting change in yourself. We often think of safe spaces as being with people we know and care about, people we trust. Rarely have I been in a group of people who have never met before where this sort of space was created, but because everyone came ready to share, learn and grow that is what happened when we all arrived on the first day. By sharing, listening, and reflecting I came away with a better understanding of what my values and drivers are as a leader and with advice and support from fellow leaders to help me tackle the parts of leadership I find more challenging. I also came away knowing that I am not alone in finding elements of leadership hard, and that this doesn’t make me any less of a leader. In fact, being aware of my weaknesses and being willing to work on them contributes to me being good.

I’ve been asked about my experience on the workshop a lot since coming back and I find myself using the same words to describe it over and over again. Inspiring. Enlightening. Empowering. I arrived at Cumberland Lodge excited and a little nervous, not knowing what to expect, but ready and open to learn and grow. 48 hours later I left knowing myself better than I did before and feeling motivated by hearing so many refreshing and progressive points of view. I left knowing, instead of wondering if, I was doing a good job. I left feeling more equipped and determined than ever to be the change I want to see for the future.