The PhD voice

Leadership for non-leaders

Hi all! This post comes at the end of the first week here at the MIT. It has been super eventful and I really should take more pictures to showcase my life, but I can say that, as I write this, we had a severe snowstorm. MIT even shut down. Here are some pictures of today.

Cambridge, MA, USA

Cambridge, MA, USA


As you can see, the afternoon was really good to put more snow there, right? But that’s not what I come to talk about with you today. I come to talk about leadership. My PhD program in particular has a very relevant focus on leadership and one of the examples of such activities is the leadership weekend. I was reminded of the importance of leadership during the welcome meeting by the MIT counterpart of my PhD program, where one of the directors said somethings like the following:

This program is meant to train new leaders for Portugal. So, do what leaders do.

This is quite funny, because I am not, by any means, a natural leader. I never was, I always hoped I would be, but I try to make my way around it. Anyway, in the few times I’ve led something, I had people praise me for my effort and for what I could create in collaboration with others. I always thought of myself of that person who generally follows, or when I try to lead, which I like to do, it doesn’t come naturally. Even though I think some people have that innate ability to lead that can’t be replicated, I think these traits can always be developed. So, if you are not a natural leader like me, but want to become more natural into that role, here’s what I try to do and what I’ve learned.

1. You can’t lead others if you can’t lead yourself

The people in my life that I see as natural and engaging leaders are people that are sure of themselves and what they want or, when they are not that sure, they are honest about it. Sometimes, in my life, in some defense against conflict, I put my needs and desires into second place. I feel, however, that I am becoming much more aware of my needs and not stretching myself thin. And leading my own blog is also great to practice this, because I have my own personal project that is so dear to me, and with this I also aim to be an opinion leader in the areas of travel and STEM careers. So, leading yourself and learning to say no to the things that you feel are not satisfying you to make space for the ones that bring value is a great lesson.

Do what leaders do

2. Listen, listen, and listen more!

If I ever am a boss, I would like to be that kind that really takes the opinions of those I need to lead into account respectfully. Most people who prefer to follow are good listeners, but sometimes it’s not the case. I, for one, when given the chance, am extremely talkative. So, I always make an effort to control my need to talk and listen to others. It’s incredible how many things we miss by not listening when we are busy trying to formulate some kind of answer. It also makes me answer more calmly.

Do what leaders do

3. Believe in what you are encouraging others to follow

This should be a no-brainer, but sometimes it’s not! Fellow academics, who never thought the work you are presenting is not that great, throw a stone. So, if you are trying to engage an audience to cooperate with you, looking like you don’t believe what you say will not work. I always have a little insecurity when I’m pitching something but I try to remind myself that I have to believe or, if I don’t believe completely, to be honest about it. Without fear. But well, that’s another part I still have to master. Everyone has fears, right?

Do what leaders do

4. Your opinions and values are as worth it as everybody else’s

It’s normal to feel that, when we’re asked to lead something, we don’t feel ready for the task. Especially when you can get into the difficult situation of leading people who have more experience than you. It’s easy to fall into the trap that our opinion won’t be respected. I’m guilty of this, but I know this is not the way to go. Just remember, we all have opinions and are all subject to criticism, and when we don’t say them, the projects we are in, at any level, may lose a lot. Stay true to what you think and remember, people should agree to disagree.

Do what leaders do

So today was a shorter post about the importance to practice leadership skills to be better in what we do. Sometimes even not wanting to lead is a way of being a leader, but most often we should take the plunge. More than telling you what I’ve learned to become better at this, this is also a reminder to myself to continue to practice those skills.

Share with us the leadership lessons you’ve been learning as well!


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Leadership for non-leaders

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