Tag Archives: Leadership

The Leadership a-Gender — 1

After competence, are certitudecharisma and chutzpah the 3-Cs of research leadership?

An image encouraging positive thinking to overcome self-doubt. Just make sure there are no large dogs about.

When Rob Moodie was the CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) he started a “conversations in leadership” series for the recipients of VicHealth Public Health Research Fellowships. The idea was to begin an explicit process to develop research leadership in public health, drawing us together to think about the qualities that were necessary.

There were ten of us at the first gathering; two men and eight women. Beyond the fact that it was a meeting for “future leaders”, none of us knew what it was all about. Rob went around the table, asking each of us in turn to introduce ourselves; he also asked how we felt about being identified as a future leader in public health research.

The gender divide was immediately and starkly revealed. When Rob asked Paul (the other man in the room) and me how we felt, we gave suitably immodest responses. I can’t remember our precise answers, but they would have reflected in some way on the appropriate recognition of our talent. Then the first woman spoke. She told, hesitantly, of a gnawing fear that she would be “found out”. Someone, probably sometime very soon, would realise that she was a fraud. She had no right to the VicHealth Fellowship, and she had even less claim on being a leader. Paul and I glanced at each other. Who were we to say that she was wrong? And then there was a visible sigh from the other women in the room. Each one, in turn, expressed an almost identical fear of being found out. This is a well-recognised phenomenon in the gender and leadership literature, described as, “imposter syndrome“: the fear of being found out.

Notwithstanding my bravado or Paul’s, I suspect neither of us felt quite as sure of our place as future leaders as we expressed. I know I didn’t. Nor, however, did I fear being found out in quite the same way the women had expressed. I may have worried a little about whether my performance would be good enough (was I leadership material?), but I did not experience the depth of self-doubt expressed by my colleagues. I had been invited into the room and, therefore, I had a right to be there! They received the same invitation but doubted their right.

An article in the Harvard Business Review on overcoming the feelings of inadequacy associated with imposter syndrome described individual, cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT) to help people manage the sense. If these techniques work, that’s great! The solution, however, reveals at least as much about organisational gender bias as it does about ways to overcome it. Underlying the CBT approach is not simply a view that self-doubt is misplaced, but that there is a deficit in the way a person’s brain works if they have that self-doubt. In other words, to succeed in leadership, you need to think more like me! The obverse problem, having an over-inflated and unrealistic view of one’s own excellence, is often rewarded in organisations, and the sufferer (or more likely the insufferable) is never referred to a Psychologist for therapy “because you’re not thinking right”. Having the 3-Cs of certitude,  charisma and chutzpah — typically identified as leadership qualities and never as leadership deficits — means that you are thinking right.

It is worth noting that although the women expressed the fear of being found out, they had all applied for and won highly coveted VicHealth Fellowships, and they were all in that room — even with their doubt.

The researcher, Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, suggests that many of the 3-C style traits that are traditionally associated with great leaders may in fact be emblematic of leadership weaknesses. Being quieter (a listener), more thoughtful (open to new ideas) and having some self-doubt (seeking out a diversity of expert advice) can be valuable traits in good leadership. These are traits often associated with women who are passed over for leadership positions because they have not yet had their “deficits” corrected.

There are some clearly terrible traits for research leaders to have. Being a bully, mean, harassing staff and being incompetent would be high on that list. In research leadership, raw incompetence would be unusual. The others, sadly, are not. Research organisations need methods for identifying good research leaders that do not fall back on tired tropes, and provide women fair paths of advancements. These are organisational systems issues, not individual deficits to correct. Almost two decades ago, Rob Moodie’s conversations in leadership was a gentle step in that direction: making us all ask the question, what is it to be a great leader? He never said, by I suspect that he hoped we would carry forward some insight into the leadership a-gender.

Conflicts of interest in research leadership (Part II)

(The fond farewell. When enough is enough)

When I started my research career, a research leader’s retirement was a moment to celebrate. Their lives and their contributions were recalled through their research, their papers, their PhD graduates and Postdocs. The Festschrift was often published, literally celebrating their intellectual contribution to a field. Some of those researchers truly retired. Many took honorary appointments that gave them a desk or space in their old laboratory, and access to the library and email. They might mentor junior staff or be a part of a PhD student’s supervisory team. Many continued to do fabulous, original research. Others became the departmental raconteur, recalling embarrassing stories of now senior departmental researchers who were once their postdocs. The retired research leaders were appreciated but no longer had a formal role in the organisational structure.

My experience today with research leaders approaching an age that would, before, have been the time to retire — the time that I am beginning to see on my horizon — is somewhat different. The game now is one of holding back the younger researchers, and hanging on, limpet-like, to substantive position for as long as possible. It is cast as an age discrimination issue. If I am capable, and I am performing at a high level, then my age should not be a barrier to my continued leadership role.  Indeed, I have vastly more experience than junior colleagues, and it would be perverse to choose them over me.

While it is true, age need not be a barrier to the capable performance of one’s duties, it is also true that senior positions are rare, and if they are held by an increasingly ageing leadership, how will we train and develop younger cadres of leaders? Turning over leadership refreshes ideas and organisations.

I recall a radio interviewer with a well known Australian clinical researcher. He recounted how, as a junior researcher, his supervisor put him down as the first author on a significant scientific paper — a career launcher. He had not earned the spot, but the supervisor saw his potential and also recognised his capacity to influence the trajectory of a promising career. Without debating the ethics of that particular decision — it was a different time — there is little doubt that the paper launched one of Australia’s great scientific careers. Forty-plus years after those events, I have seen very capable, senior research leaders forsake their leadership role in favour of hanging on to power. They do not surround themselves with bright, eager, up-and-comers. They do not mentor and position their staff to take over. Instead, they retain non-threatening doers, many of whom will not even appear in the acknowledgements of their scientific papers.

In a post I wrote a little over a year ago I observed that in the interests of gender fairness, men had to be prepared to relinquish power. I have a similar view of intergenerational fairness. Those research leaders among us who were born in a twenty-year, golden age between about 1945 and 1965  have been extraordinarily lucky with the opportunities that we have had. In the interests of fairness and, frankly, in the interests of science, we need to know when to step away. We can still be a part of an exciting research agenda; maybe we do not need to be seen to lead it.

Perhaps the last act of truly great research leaders is to step back.

Es ist ernst! [It is serious]

Chancellor Angela Merkel, 2019 (source: wikimedia)

There are truly great, rousing political speeches. President John F Kennedy’s Inaugural Address on 29 January 1961 comes to mind: “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s, “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, during World War II.

The defining political speech of the COVID-age will surely be that of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel: “Es is ernst!” It’s in German. There are subtitles. Watch it!!

The power of the speech lies in no single phrase and no single idea. The power lies in the gestalt. It lies in the thoughtful, measured, and compassionate speech to a nation from someone who holds the idea of democracy dearly, and needs to ask 83.1 Million people for patience, sacrifice, and forbearance; for a great community good — because no one is expendable.

In her speech, brilliantly, she thanks the forgotten cash register staff and shelf packers for their tireless efforts, as well as the easily remembered healthcare and public health workforce for theirs. She suggests that people might even consider writing a letter to a friend or loved one because, of course, the German postal service continues to work. She constantly plays between the culture of the German people (what it is to be a German), their expectations of Government, and the task of managing SARS-CoV-2.

Like many countries, Germany has instituted measures that are anathema to democracy, but necessary to slow the spread of the virus. As she explains, all we are doing now is buying time. Stretching it out. The longer we stretch it out, the more time researchers and healthcare workers have to find measures of prevention, management, and cure. The longer we stretch it out, the more person-ventilator-time (PVT) and person-ICU-time (PICUT) there will be to allocate. If you are acutely ill, PVT and PICUT are the most precious commodities available at the moment (excepting toilet paper), and the best way to make more of this commodity is to stretch out the length of the pandemic.

Do not watch or listen to the blather and buffoonery of the likes of Trump and Johnson. Whether they do not understand or do not care is irrelevant. Their “ideas”, their politics and their speeches will be lost in the waste-paper basket of history, to be picked over by pimply, undergraduate students in response to the essay topic: “Political leadership is important in times of crisis. Discuss”

Merkel’s speech is the most hopeful, rational and caring political message I have heard since the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Sitting at my desk in Dhaka, I found it enormously comforting to know that there was leadership like Angela Merkel’s out there. There has been considerable discussion about the lack of global political leadership. It is there. Turn your eyes and face the light.

This is serious.