We are inundated with articles and books on the topic of leadership. Perhaps one of your advisors or mentors has urged you to work on developing your “leadership skills”. Leadership is prized at all levels of an organization and is also one of the most common criteria required for a promotion. Yet little explanation is given for how someone can or should demonstrate this quality.
I am often asked to give career seminars on Leadership Skills. After attempting to put together such a presentation many times, I could never actually figure out what skills were really leader-specific. How is leadership different from good management? Aren't all career skills leaderhsip skills when done well? Do you just have to know it when you see it?
“The Three Stages of Your Career: Doer, Manager, Leader” by Charlotte Beers, divides workers into three cycles: Doers, Managers and Leaders. I like her use of the term “cycles” instead of levels because it emphasizes the importance of these very different roles. At any stage in our careers we may be in a cycle of doing, managing or leading. All three roles are important to accomplishing any goal or finishing any project.
Doers are the ones who do the work
Doers focus on understanding what is expected of them and learning new skills to get the work done efficiently and with high quality. Their work involves coordination and can require technical mastery. Scientists need to be doers for a long time before they master the skills they need to be successful. Scientists are lifelong learners so we are all likely spending a lot of time in doer mode even late in our careers.
Managers make sure the work gets done
Managers do this by removing obstacles that stand in the way of the doers and by ensuring good communication. A manager must both hire and fire to make sure the team is the best it can be. Managers must ensure that their teams are working well together and collaborating effectively with other teams. While they sometimes dig in and do some of the work, they must be more focused on delegating tasks and in motivating their doers by ensuring they are as engaged as possible. To learn more about being an effective manager, read the other posts in this series.
Listen to our podcast interview with Connie Cepko to learn about her management style.
Leaders look to the future
Leaders must get new things started and then step back to let others take the reins. They work alone much of the time, depending on the organization they lead. Effective leaders rarely give orders (although they must occasionally). Good leaders exert influence in other ways. While good managers must motivate their teams, it is the leader’s job to provide the driving inspiration, to create a productive culture and to correct systemic problems.
Understanding these three roles allows you to identify what you need to do to be successful in a specific role or cycle. For example, if you try to lead when you are expected to be doing, you may not be recognized as successful because you are not fulfilling the requirements of the current task.
Most of us start as doers, some become managers and some take on leadership roles. You may be happy with a primary role of doer for your entire career. Scientists train as doers and often maintain an enjoyment in the doing. Many science managers or leaders will tell you how much they miss the hands-on bench work. To really be happy, you may need to find a way to do, manage and lead all in one day.
How do you convince others (in particular your boss) that you are ready to try operating in a different role? I think the secret sauce can be summed up in one word – initiative. Initiative is the ability to assess and initiate things independently.
Taking initiative doesn’t mean going rogue, pointing out problems or highlighting criticisms. To be given the opportunity to take on the role of leader, one needs to take the initiative by bringing and effecting solutions to both known and unidentified issues.
There are many good resources on the skills and characteristics of successful leaders. Below I've listed a few of my favorites. Additionally, you can find more suggested resources on this topic and get the whole series of blog posts in one pdf - download the Addgene Management for Scientists Ebook.
- Fire, Snowball, Mask: How Leaders Spark and Sustain Change, by Peter Fuda and Richard Badham
- Leadership Insights for Engineers, Scientists and Computer Professionals as Leaders, by Ken Graham, Ph.D.
- How Good Are Your Leadership Skills? Mind Tools Quiz Activity
- What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, by Marshall Goldsmith, with Mark Reiter
- Harvard Business Review 10 Must Reads: On Leadership (Articles on Leadership, also can be purchased individually)