What kind of a leader do I want to be?

I’m one of those people who believe one needs to be a leader, not just act like one. I’m happy for others to differ, but I believe being a leader is a full-time always-on kind of a thing, not just a role to take on in some situations. I also believe that becoming a leader is a psychological process of cultivating one’s character.

I do sign up to the view that our actions define us, i.e. I believe it’s fair to judge me as a leader by my actions. But even in this I believe that my actions are guided by my choices about the kind of a leader I want to be. In other words, it’s rarely the case that I just take actions and only later reflect on what those actions say about me.

But why am I wanting to write about being a leader anyway? The world is full of leadership literature written by people much more in the know.

All I can say is I’ve badly wanted to write this post since late last year, but also seriously struggled to articulate myself. Yet I haven’t been able to make myself to publish another post until I get this finished. Hence there’s been no posts since Oct 2015!!!

Maybe this post is a product of looking around me and seeing a lot of people struggling to figure out “how to become a leader” (including seeing myself in the mirror asking this question). So maybe this post is about trying to say something small but concrete, to share a personal narrative about what I have come to think becoming a clinician academic leader involves.

Perhaps I’m just writing this to share my story, in a hope that it encourages others to explicitly think what their personal leadership narratives are (and maybe even write a quest post here about their narratives!).

My leadership narrative isn’t linear, and doesn’t neatly progress over time. For me, becoming a clinician academic leader feels more like a series of small but important choices rolled out over several years – rather than some big steps or specific moments. And to me a sense of leadership certainly doesn’t feel tied to specific posts or jobs.

I think one of my earliest genuine, fleeting leadership moments was when I was doing my PhD and a very senior colleague was speaking pretty badly about two of my (also junior) colleagues. I said to her I thought she was out of order. It was just me and her in that conversation, but it still felt like a leadership behaviour to me. I felt I had stepped off the path I was being led down, and taken a stand for something I believed in.

Another example are the many small moments when clinicians or clinical teams have behaved in various unpleasant or unacceptable ways, and I have needed to find ways to challenge these behaviours – and try to model more positive and appropriate behaviours. I think I am a lot better at this now than I was 10 years ago – but I would say I still fail to address these situations satisfactorly about 2/3 of the time. I’ve actually learnt that I am better at preventing these situations than I am at dealing with them. Preventing by trying to make sure I am on good leadership behaviours at all times (it takes an especially nasty person to behave badly if the other person is behaving well).

Then there are the frequent small moments when I make the choice to ask a positively challenging (and sometimes scary) question, or to say the thing that everyone thinks but no one wants to voice (maybe because these kind of questions often end up taking quite a bit of time and effort to see through). Or the moments when I choose to give colleagues ‘robust’ (many might say ‘harsh’) feedback, after carefully judging that they are ready for it intellectually, can cope with it emotionally, trust me to know it’s considered and with good intentions, and are in the right place to use the feedback to turn a significant corner.

I think that nearly all genuine leadership I have done to date has been this kind of “small moment” stuff. It’s been about trying to figure out a good way to be and then act in line with that. The challenge is, since these moments usually come unexpectedly and pass very quickly, it’s hard to prepare for them.

And I think that’s probably why I feel it’s about being a leader all the time, so that those quick moments are largely just about living out what I already seek to be.

That brings me to the big (overwhelming) question: What kind of a leader do I want to be? And perhaps that’s what I mean by saying that to me becoming a leader is a very personal thing, and a process of discovery and growth. Trying to figure out and choose what kind of a person do I want to be.

I think I am still very much trying to figure out what kind of a leader I want to be. In big part my choices in this are informed by the values I have chosen to take forward from my family. Another key part are my professional role models; the people I admire and aspire to emulate in some parts.

So what would I like to be as a leader? I am not going to list all the things here, and I don’t think I even know them all yet! But I do know some of the things firmly.

I would definitely like to be someone who holds a high bar for quality and rigour. My PhD supervisors taught me how having high standards are an opportunity to throw myself on an exciting journey to discovery and how working to high standards gives me a sense of integrity that cannot be matched by any external reward [They also thought me to be pragmatic: “The perfect is the worst enemy of the good!”]

I would like to be fair and generous. To give help and share ideas and resources. I would rather we all pull together as a team and share the credit than struggle on our own (even if it means I get less personal credit and reward in total). I have benefitted a lot from generosity from my family and from countless colleagues, and I am very keen to pay that forward. [But I am not a fool. People who take my generosity too far quickly get blacklisted].

And I always try to be honest. I don’t always say everything I think (I’m not sure such life would even be feasible!) and I am not open about everything. But if you ask me a straight question you’ll get a straight answer – even if I know it’s not what you want to hear.

I think a key thing I have learnt along the way is that it can be quite hard to want to be the kind of a leader who lives by one’s values AND to want to hold on to a specific position. Maybe it’s just me, but I do find myself thinking (several times a year) “I am going to have to do this, because I believe it’s right, even if it means [I’ll lose my job/the key person ends up hating me/it’s really detrimental for my career]”. I have never been sacked (not even cautioned or been in any serious trouble), and I think that’s because of the mentoring I have received. My mentors have always played an enourmous part in my growth and development, and it’s really been them who have help me to figure out how to navigate the small everyday actions in ways that positively reflect the kind of a leader I want to be.

I say it over and over again. There is no way I would be where I am had it not been my mentors. If you asked me what is the single most influential thing you can do for yourself to become a leader – I would say, without a hesitation, “Get yourself a brilliant mentor. Someone you respect hugely, someone who already in successfully embodies an aspect of the kind of a leader you want to become”.

So, to me, the first question of becoming a leader really is: What kind of leader do you want to be?


This post is, exceptionally, dedicated to Adrian Grant and Jill Francis (for showing me what an amazing thing rigorous research is), to Tuomo Toivonen and Graeme MacLennan (for instilling in me the value of generosity over personal gain), and to Risto Toivonen (for allowing me to grow up seeing people as people rather than as people with impairments or problems).

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