Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

From as soon as one goes anywhere near the clinical academic step ladder one is told that funders look for leaders, and that one needs to start to become one. From there on it becomes a case of developing one’s leadership skills, competencies and roles. Yet, ironically, I never expected to arrive to the point of actually being one.

I have just had an edifying clinical academic leadership experience of a kind I have not had before, and I thought I would share it.

As contextual background, until an hour ago I didn’t even know what “edifying” means, and while I liked the sound of being a leader my relationship with the idea was like taming a wild beast. Most of the time the beast was having the upper hand, while I seemed to be putting in all the effort to get even a small pull of its fur. And it felt like the only thing that was changing was the amount of time that I spent wresting (i.e. more and more). My success in getting to grips with it certainly did not seem to be increasing. On reflection, the last 18-24 months have probably been one big pretty exhausting dance with the beast.

So what changed this afternoon?

Well, events sneaked up on me. I thought I was just going to meet the funders to update them on my progress. I’d prepared a report and a short talk, and had my materials lined up. I presented the things, answered questions, thanked them, and left.

But something else happened too. As part of discussing my progress, I told them about some of my leadership struggles, and the related learnings. And they smiled! And nodded! I felt like their faces said: “Yes, this is what happens at this stage.” and “You have arrived.”

All of sudden I felt like I had passed. Not the review (they’ll email me the outcome), but a developmental window. A window from an independent advanced clinical academic to a leader.

It felt like time stopped for that short moment. And in that moment I could see the entire path I had walked since getting into research, while also realising I was going through a window to something new, to something from which I could not come back from. Because I would no longer be the same person.

It felt quite sad, and quite lonely – even though the path forward looked very positive! I think the sadness related to a realisation that with becoming a leader some of my relationships would change. And that there is no going back to the days when a project was just me doing my thing, head in the books and data, running my own stuff from start to finish. It will always be about co-ordinating, leading and supervising. It will be about teams and other people, and about complexities. And it’s not that any of that is bad. It’s just that I can now see that one amazing period of my working life has come to its end, and there is no way of crawling back.

I often say to clinicians new to research that being a clinician academic is a journey, not a state or an end point. And that being on that journey changes you. Being a clinician academic is not a case of just taking on something new and the rest staying the same. It is about changing as a person as that new is integrated to the previous. I think I just had not realised that the change would continue to happen as such a substantial process for this long. I was not expecting this window.

On hind sight, I recall others talking about this leadership window. Saying how all of a sudden they realised that they were now among the people they had always considered their leaders. And how that shift had sneaked up on them until it was there, staring them in the face. And then there was no going back.

This morning I did not feel like a leader. I knew I do leadership roles, and have leadership skills. But I never felt comfortable saying or thinking that I was one.

Now. All of a sudden. I do.

Title credit: Easter 1916 by WB Yeats,

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