STEM leadership

3 reasons science faculty need leadership training

Connecting STEM faculty to opportunities to build leadership skills can benefit universities

Do engineers and researchers need to know basic business leadership principles? Some universities are saying yes, noting that basic business leadership concepts can help academic researchers and scientists cultivate career experience.

U.S. corporations spend billions each year on leadership and management training, and while the focus has been on business people, some universities are encouraging their engineering and science faculty to enroll in similar training programs to strengthen their human-centered leadership skills as they pursue their own research and mentor students.

When science and engineering faculty members are not schooled in effective leadership, they waste time dealing with lack of motivation and unnecessary conflict and interpersonal issues, said MIT Professor Charles Leiserson, lead professor of a summer leadership course offered by MIT Professional Education.

After teaching leadership workshops for hundreds of engineering and science faculty members, Leiserson said hardly any of the professors had ever taken a class in leadership skills or knew of their existence.

At most universities, junior faculty members must learn leadership skills on the job by trial and error, often to the detriment of their students and careers. Senior faculty members’ failure to provide a supportive culture could harm the reputation of their department or laboratory, he added.

(Next page: Three reasons leadership skills could benefit your science faculty)

Here are three ways leadership skills can benefit science and engineering faculty:

1. Helping science-focused university instructors work on skills to foster those human relationships can save instructors time, which can lead to more productivity and better student engagement

“The skills we’re teaching are things they teach in business school–the industry spends a huge amount of money on leadership skills and management training. They’re more used to the fact that processes don’t work if the people don’t work together,” Leiserson said. “In universities, we’re not hired because of our ability to get along. We tend to be hired because of the rational side of our brains.”

“Most people say they’re amazed at how much time it saves them,” Leiserson said. “They question whether going away to a workshop for two days will be worth it. They want to spend their time on the innovative things they do, not on resolving somebody’s hurt feelings. We get feedback that people make up the cost of the program in terms of time spent avoiding and anticipating difficult situations. We also hear that the quality of instructor-student interaction is a lot richer as a result of the program.”

2. Ignoring leadership skills could throw university departments into temporary chaos

Recently, Leiserson said a major university reorganized operations within one department. “The person who oversaw the reorganization had a good concept of what to do, but never solicited the input of the people he was reorganizing,” he said. “As a consequence, they were all blind-sided and chaos ensued as a result–it didn’t have to happen that way.”

3. Strengthening leadership skills builds empathy

Empathy skills help people appreciate mental diversity in others, Leiserson said.

“Even people who are very enlightened wouldn’t think of being prejudiced, or displaying it or acting on it,” he said. “Part of what we found is that mental diversity is far more variable than differences in skin color or culture upbringing. By teaching people about mental diversity, it immediately extends to other types of diversity, and this makes people aware of their blind spots, or just more generally aware of diversity issues.”

And when it comes down to it, diversity and different ways of thinking are often at the root of many conflicts.

“That actually ends up being a big thing. Conflict is a big thing we deal with in the workshop, and a lot of conflict comes from the fact that we just think about the same thing differently,” Leiserson said. “If you think about things differently and communicate with each other, you need to reach out to each other in a way that each person can hear what the other is saying. That’s hugely important for teaching, but also for communicating about what you’re working on and its social purpose.”

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Laura Ascione

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