While the importance of leader character in fostering personal well-being and sustained excellence in organizations has gained traction in the business world, there is significant opportunity to consider the benefits of developing and exercising leader character in academia.
The term ‘leader’ could be a formal title, one bestowed upon an individual by professional peers. In academia, however, leaders can emerge in unconventional ways and can cut across organizations and titles. As academics, we focus on the disposition to lead, rather than the position to lead, when it comes to identifying leader character. The nature of our work means we should be providing thought leadership in our research, and translating that in the classroom to help cultivate students who, themselves, will have the disposition to lead. An academic does not need to supervise another person, or hold an administrative position in order to exercise leadership in their work.
There are many career paths for PhDs at Western – some lead to contract or tenure track positions in universities, but most lead to important roles in the public sector, including industry research and development, administrative and professional roles, education, business and finance, consulting, publishing, not-for-profit sector, health care and medical research, or being an entrepreneur.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ career approach, and most individuals need to cultivate a career path that works uniquely for them. This is perhaps the first lesson when it comes to character, and leadership. It takes strength of character to exercise a quality of judgment that doesn’t simply respond to what often feels like pressure and expectations, one that may not align with one’s personal aspirations. It often takes courage to deviate from what appears to be the norm. And it takes humility not to be drawn into destructive comparisons about what success means in academia.
Regardless of the career path, exercising the kind of thought leadership that is the hallmark of higher education requires strength of character alongside great competence in one’s area of expertise. Our capacity to think and write is characterized by the quality of that thinking and writing, and that quality arises from more than competence. It often takes courage to find one’s voice in research; it takes temperance in terms of patience and calm, and certainly humility to handle the critique that comes with challenging new ideas. Knowing why you pursue what you do may be anchored in character dimensions of drive, transcendence, and accountability that invigorate your work.
While we often turn to competence – and in particular the knowledge we need – to pursue an area of research, we often lose sight of the strength of character required to exercise competence; often, it is shortcomings in character that undermine personal well-being in pursuit of excellence in our profession.
Whether in a university setting or in industry, you will need to exercise character and competence to foster excellence in your own work and the work of others. Yet there is little understanding of what character is and how it can be developed. Led by a research team at Ivey Business School, and including researchers across campus and around the world, we are forging the way here at Western. It is important to remember the foundation of the PhD degree – the highest academic degree – is to contribute to society through innovation, discovery and outreach. Developing character alongside competence is critical in this regard.
Mary Crossan is a Distinguished University Professor and professor of Strategic Leadership at Western’s Ivey Business School. She will be presenting with Brenda Nguyen, an Ivey postdoctoral fellow, at Western’s first Doctoral Students’ Leadership Forum titled, “Leadership – Your Path to Career Success” on Feb. 16. All PhDs are invited to attend this free event. Please visit grad.uwo.ca to register.