What makes a successful leader?

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Is “leadership” just one of those skills that if you have it, you have it, and if you don’t, you don’t? Is it something you can take a class or a workshop on and suddenly be an expert? Do you need to be in charge of other people to be a leader? Do you consider yourself a leader?

There are many qualities that strong leaders possess, and while these qualities may come more naturally to some than others, leadership skills require continuous development for everyone.

I have taken on a variety of leadership roles, from being on the student council throughout high school, to being a THON captain in undergrad, to chairing the Huck Graduate Student Advisory Committee (HGSAC) as a grad student. As I have navigated through the responsibilities of different leadership positions, I have learned to hone different qualities to improve my leadership skills and enhance the experiences and efficacy of each group that I was leading. You could Google the phrase “how to be a successful leader” and get hundreds of lists from different sources, but to simplify things and put them in terms of being a leader in graduate school and science, I have assembled a list based on my own experiences.

This post is a sort of “prequel” to a new blog series I’ll be starting soon — the Student Leader Spotlight Series — to highlight different student leaders in the Huck Institutes and closely related graduate programs and the awesome things that they do, so be on the lookout for that!

1. Ability to delegate

You may be wondering why the idea of giving work to other people is the first attribute I chose to highlight as the quality of a good leader. Why not something like determination or confidence?

“The hallmark of great leadership is whether the organization and initiatives that are ongoing and planned continue beyond the leaders’ departure.” This was said to me by Dr. Troy Ott, Professor of Reproductive Biology here at Penn State and Associate Director of the Huck Institutes, and it was something that I definitely took to heart.

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Delegation is a skill that I only recently began to hone, and I wish I had done so sooner. First of all, delegation allows you to focus on the bigger picture of a project or idea rather than worrying about smaller details that other people in your organization could be taking care of. Delegating tasks to others also shows them that you have confidence in them and that you trust them – not only is this a huge morale boost, but it also makes the members of the organization feel like they are necessary “cogs in the machine.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly to us as graduate students, delegation saves you precious time – not only time to work on other aspects of the project at hand but also time for future projects, time for that little thing we do called scientific research, and time for yourself.

If being a good leader simply means being able to tell other people what to do, why is it really considered a skill? Well, in order for the delegation of tasks to actually work, it must be done so effectively. Understanding the personalities and work habits of those you are leading is necessary to successful delegation. Secondly, don’t just delegate tasks that you don’t want to do because they’re boring or difficult – if it’s something that you should specifically be doing, then do it. When you do find a task suitable for someone else, make sure to explain to them why you chose them.

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It’s also important to ensure  you communicate if you have specific standards for how a task should be done to minimize confusion and frustration for all parties involved. Finally, make sure to give some independence to those working on delegated tasks while also periodically (without sticking your nose into every single detail) doing follow-ups to see if there are any questions or concerns. You should then give credit when credit is due – make sure those who are working for you understand how much you appreciate them!

2. Communication

I already spoke a bit to the importance of communication surrounding the delegation of tasks, but good communication skills are a cornerstone to all facets of leadership. The most crucial aspect to this particular skill is understanding that communication is a two-way street — it’s just as important for you to listen to those around you as it is for you to make sure they know your thoughts.

My favorite part of acting as the Chair of the HGSAC was getting to sit in a room with other graduate student leaders and listen to their ideas and what they hoped to accomplish. In fact, that’s exactly how this blog got started! The old adage that two heads are better than one rings especially true in group work, so if you find yourself leading a group of people, make sure you realize that others might have just as good of ideas as you do and that taking the time to listen to those ideas can go a long way.

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When you are the one doing the talking, it’s essential that you do so in a clear and concise manner. No one likes to hear someone drone on and on about a topic for fifteen minutes when the same information could have been discussed in five. Transparency – saying exactly what you mean and not forcing people to read between the lines – is also key. Finally, don’t be afraid to be personal. Maintaining professionalism with those you work with is important but that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot or not talk about anything but work. Developing meaningful relationships with those around you will make them more likely to open up and share their great ideas.


3. Self-confidence

The last skill I’ve chosen to highlight is self-confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, then how can you convince other people that you have good ideas, persuade them that their precious time is worth investing in your efforts, and inspire them to follow you?

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People tend to naturally follow those who are confident because they seem more trustworthy and competent. However, it’s also important to make sure that as a leader, you aren’t too confident and you’re able to recognize when you need help (hmm…delegation?!). For the most part, confident leaders are more decisive, motivated, and generally happy.

If self-confidence isn’t your strong suit, try doing a better job of self-praising. Also, don’t do self-assessments by comparing yourself to others because that will just drive you crazy. Set realistic goals, obtain them, and then congratulate yourself. Finally, remember that no one is perfect and that failure is just part of life – as scientists, we should know this better than anyone!


If you’re looking to hone your leadership skills, check out these helpful resources!

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