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Are you a good leader? The importance of leadership skills in the PhD

27 June 2018

When considering the skills needed to complete the PhD, leadership might not be the first word that springs to mind. However, chances are you’re already practising leadership skills without realising it. Here, John Steele (Head of Training & Development, Skills Development Service) tells us why leadership skills are incredibly useful to the PhD, and what training is on offer to Cardiff PGRs.

It may be hard to see how developing leadership fits within a PhD. Surely it’s more important to do the research? Isn’t leadership a job people do ‘out there’? On the contrary, it takes personal leadership to see a research idea through to completion, and to navigate the tasks, people and projects that come along the way.

I believe every person has leadership credentials within them. Some jump at the chance to prove it, while others don’t even recognise they are leading.

I was first appointed in a leadership role back way back. It seemed a simple step up from a normal routine team member, no training, no preparation, just being the most senior/suitable person. I had great product knowledge and a good work record. I’d flirted with it previously I suppose, firstly as a cub-scout sixer and later as an NCO in a cadet force – I now see many students testing leadership out when taking up roles on committees or in teams.

All these opportunities were really about was ‘people skills’; and in these early experiences I was certainly unprepared in this respect. So when I took up supervisory duties on that first Monday morning, I had two erroneous beliefs – that as a ‘good’ leader I would a) need to show willing and muck in with the rest of the staff and b) be seen from time to time to admonish people for faults and poor performance. That was it, I said to myself.

Muck in I did, to the degree that I was consistently providing higher results than those I was supposed to be supervising. My staff began to take liberties while I was in fact doing their work. Every so often I’d look out for weaknesses in order to criticise them or to find fault with something.

Three years later I had come to realise that some things about my leadership weren’t quite right and I embarked on a three day residential course. This opened my eyes as to the effect my approach was having on my team; I felt the most unpopular and ineffective leader there was. I took on board all that the course leaders offered and gradually the sky began to brighten.

I was soon able to understand the different styles of leadership and how to apply them. I was introduced to a powerful quotation from management expert Tom Peters who said “Leadership is about doing the right things”. So I started to take an interest in my staff while encouraging them to accomplish their jobs. I learnt to take a back seat and to support people when they needed it. I learnt to direct but not demand, to coach but not do the job for people and to delegate to the more experienced.

With further development I mastered coaching skills and assertiveness, so was able to deal with more difficult and challenging conversations calmly and professionally. My job title may have remained the same but in my actions and ways of helping others, the actual job was a revelation. I am convinced that my willingness to invest in my leadership skills helped get where I am today.

What does all this mean to you? Well, I would strongly recommend any form of leadership training before you think you need it. In the Skills Development Service we can provide short sessions in the same topics which helped me enormously. You can identify your leadership and team styles and apply them in your own environment, learn to communicate in challenging conversations, or how to navigate problems and much more.  It worked for me and I was an experienced staff member, or so I thought. In the Skills Development Service you can learn before you seek a step into greater responsibility, either in the research environment or in wider careers.

Students who have attended leadership training at the Skills Development Service say:

“It’s made me thinking logically and take a correct decision in suitable time to fix a problem”

“I will be… more assertive talking to my team and with my boss”

“Now, I can talk about the skills I’ve learned in personal statements/CVs with potential employers.”

Keep an eye on your emails for the series I’ll be running with the Doctoral Academy. You can gain certification for attending, or for any five topics attended in the Skills Development Service. Now that can’t be bad!


  1. Liane

    Thanks for sharing your experience john!
    I guess we all have gone through similar situations. In my case I always expect people to work as per my standards regardless of what their capability is. This used to end up in me jumping into the matter and doing all work by myself. It was exhausting and tiring but slowly I have realized that it needs to be changed and now I smartly delegate the work within the team and work on empowering the team.
    I havent attended any leadership program as such but I guess I should give it a try. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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