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Like any big concept, there is no single agreed definition of leadership: this is the subject of ongoing debate. Similarly, ideas about what make a good leader have changed over time and can vary across field or sector.

Some key themes about the nature of leadership and about what makes a good leader have nevertheless emerged from our consultation with a range of employers, including former postdocs who have become leaders beyond academia.

  • Taking ownership
  • Inspiring others
  • Setting an example

Taking ownership

Leadership is:

  • about taking responsibility
  • acting with initiative

It is comparable to project management. Managing others in an official ‘line management’ capacity is one way of developing your leadership skills, but there are many other ways in which you can demonstrate leadership. In fact, the more traditional, hierarchical ‘line management’ structures tend to be outdated in many organisations today. Think about your current postdoc position. It’s likely that you are line managed by a PI, but you probably lead some projects on your own initiative and may be responsible to a range of stakeholders for different collaborations.

The same is true beyond academia:  it is increasingly common to find matrix structures wherein your responsibilities vary, and you are accountable to multiple people and projects. In this context, the drive to get things done and the ability to motivate others across team structures or traditional line management relationships is extremely desirable to employers.

“When I say leadership I don't necessarily mean managing people. It’s about taking a problem, taking ownership and responsibility for that problem, and getting done whatever needs to be done in order to solve that problem. It’s about taking ownership.

Martyn Spink, ex - Programme Director, IBM UK Research Team

Inspiring, motivating and developing others

Leadership is not just about creating followers. It is often said that the best leaders create not followers, but more leaders. A good leader keeps people involved in delivering that goal.

The importance of unlocking, enabling and growing the potential of others came through strongly from our cocreation with employers who are leaders in a range of sectors.

Important aspects of leadership:

  • Being able to identify the strengths and interests of your colleagues.
  • Recognising what motivates others.
  • Understanding that motivations will vary depending on each individual.

It’s part of my role to inspire and motivate and develop others to be the best they can be in their roles and support them when they need it.”

Stephanie Donaldson, Executive Director of Business Resources, National Museums Liverpool

Setting an example

Importance of values-based leadership:

  • Modelling the type of behaviour and culture you seek to foster.
  • 'Practising what you preach'.
  • Not expecting team members to do something that you would not be prepared to do yourself.

These were all cited as important aspects of successful leadership.

You may not have led a team before, but have you had a positive impact on your team’s culture by modelling certain behaviours? This is an important part of leadership and employers are interested in this type of experience.

More leadership resources

The three themes above came through most strongly from our employer cocreation. In addition to this, we’ve worked with Dr Robin Henderson from MY Consultants to produce further resources which will help you reflect on leadership attributes and different leadership styles. You’ll also find a range of workshop resources to support your reflection and development.

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130 minutes