Monday, 13 July 2015

7 Thoughts on Leadership

You may remember a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about attending the Aspire Trailiblazing Leadership conference. You don't remember? Don't worry: it's here. If it isn't evident from that post, I went to the conference with very clear professional goals that I wanted to explore. But I couldn't do justice to everything I learned. So, instead, here are 7 things I learned from the conference.

1) Everyone is Terrified of Failure
For me, one of the most powerful exercises was early on in the first day. We were paired off, and asked to share with a partner our biggest fear, and accept it.
All the women I spoke to about this exericse said fear of feeling like a failure was at the heart of their fears. What varied is what will trigger that feeling of failure. For me, it would be failing this PhD. For another, her charity not getting funding. For another woman, it was failing to get a promotion. For another woman, it was not keeping a roof over her kids' heads.

But all these fears are necessary if you want to finish a PhD, run a charity, be promoted, house your children. Leaders are the people who welcome the fear, brave the possible bad outcomes. They risk feeling like a failure. But they also risk doing great things.

2) Leaders Start From the Inside Out
One thing that concerned me with this conference was the fear that, really, I'm not a leader. I don't line manage anyone at work (and never have). I'm only four months into a PhD - I haven't organised anything, and don't really know my way around the system.

What was stressed throughout the two days was that leadership is a ripple effect. You lead yourself, then your immediate circle. Maybe then you lead your organisation. Maybe then you lead the world. But those outer circles require self-leadership. Or - as I like to think of it - getting sh*t done. Leaders find something they care about and they motivate themselves to do something about it.

And sometimes, these actions get them titles, or accolades. But often, their actions change things, including the people around them. And so, at the ripe old age of 26, I feel comforted that getting sh*t done is a good start.

3) One Goal Doesn't Negate Another.
As I mentioned above, my aim was to go in, figure out all my professional aims and find people who could help me with them. And then, things about family started coming up. In every exercise I did, my relationship with my family kept coming up. I hadn't even been thinking about it when I went in.  A voice in my head told me to focus on what I was there for. I ignored it, and I've been putting some of what I learned into practice. And it's already improving my overall happiness and - by extension - my desire to work on my thesis.

For you, it might not be family. But I firmly believe that everyone is more than just the sum of their wordcount, their paygrade, or their title. And that working on one area doesn't detract from your desire to work on another: in fact, it's neccesary.

4) If Something Seems Like Second Nature to You, it's Probably Because You're Pretty Good at it.
On Day 2, we split up into groups of 10 and instructed to ask for exactly what we needed to achieve our goals. Again, I thought What can I offer? No one is going to need help interpreting romances, or identifying episodes of the Simpsons by opening scene. Either side of me, women were saying the same. What do I know? But as people shared what they needed, we each realised we did have skill or knowledge to contribute: we just didn't value them because we were already good at them.

I offered my email address, and am already helping people out. And those same women who said they had nothing to offer, they're helping me, too.

5) Surrounding Yourself With the Right People is Vital.
Every person I spoke to was open, interested and engaged. Yes, plenty of us were nervous, but this was the first conference I've ever been to where I felt that people were interested in me. And I can't separate the work I've done (and will do) as a result of this conference from that atmosphere.

As PhD students, we can often be cynics. And I understand why: a PhD is grueling, requires a lot of sacrifice, and the outcomes are becoming less and less certain (oh what, you want a tenured position? ha!) The mental health issues and financial insecurities don't help, and are often not discussed at all.

But, the way we interact is so often based on low-level scepticism about the administration's latest blunder, or the replacement of chairs in the common room. We don't even talk about the big things. And I can't be alone in finding this constant, low-level skepticism tiring, can I? And I can't be alone in finding that my best ideas and aspirations don't come when I'm complaining about the department's foibles, can I?

6) There is another way for conferences.
Here's what the Aspire conference lacked:
  • Name tags
  • Rows of seats (think circles of 10)
  • Formal sessions (more circles)
  • A formal conference dinner
  • Powerpoint (mostly)
  • Jargon (entirely!)

These very simple, very deliberate steps meant people spoke to each other honestly and openly. The sessions were interactive. They invited discussion (and not the kind with destructive, self-focused questions). And, with minimal powerpoint, we focused on the speaker. No formal roundtables. No confrontational questions. No awkward people who came alone and are shut out of cliques.

I know that a professional development conference is aimed at a difference audience. And I know that the ExCel centre is very different from your Postgraduate centre. But all I can think about now is, what would an academic conference look like if we deliberately planned it to be more open?

7) You don't need always second helpings.
No-one needs two fudgy chocolate brownies. You will just feel sick.

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