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Lead from where you are

Traditional views of leadership suggest that you need a title or status to be a leader. However, true leadership can be seen at every level of a team or organization regardless of title or status. Consider this: are you stepping into your full potential as a leader during your time as a postdoc? Leadership skills are always at the top of the list for any sector in jobs you may be seeking, inside or outside academia. We share insights gleaned from top leaders visiting UW throughout the quarter as part of the Husky Leadership Initiative (and yes, we want to have a postdoc contingent in this next year!)

Purpose: Start with your “why”. The “what” you are doing will change and evolve over time and with different opportunities. But the central purpose to your work, and how you engage with it, will be what opens doors and draws others to you.   

Be curious: There is evidence to show that starting a conversation from a stance of inquiry opens a conversation. This is far more productive than a judgment or accusation, which can close down or narrow a decision. It is more likely to get you where you want to go, and will leave the person with positive regard for you rather than resentment.

Vulnerability: Rather than being a weakness, rumbling with your own vulnerability is one of the most courageous acts there can be. Developing awareness of your vulnerability, rather than guarding against it or pretending it isn’t there can help you to ask for the help you need, seek contributions from others and work toward genuinely co-creating solutions.

Conflict as generative: We often talk about “normalizing feedback” – where everyone has an opportunity to reflect on what’s going well (specifically) and identify a place we can improve. The challenge is transitioning from a culture where conflict has been toxic (judgmental, personal, emotional) to one where it can be healthy.

Superchickens3 don’t win. All of this may seem antithetical to the traditional academic and grant-funded environment we find ourselves in, where competition is the norm. However, research on effective teams and innovative leaders shows that competitive environments become places where people perform at much lower productivity levels: because they are scared, under pressure and not sharing ideas that may grow creative solutions.

Take a moment and reflect on your own teamwork and leadership style. It does not mean being the most charismatic, outgoing or decisive person. Genuine leaders are humble enough to know they do not hold all the answers; they are curious to know what others can bring to the problem or mission at hand. Whatever role you play within your group, you can ask thoughtful questions, invite others to speak and share, value contributions of others, and provide guidance in shaping team or project direction. We believe in you and see you as leaders everywhere throughout our UW ecosystem — thank you.

And thanks to the community leaders who came forward this quarter to generously share their insights about leadership, and the Husky Leadership Initiative.

Deep dive: 

  1. Brene Brown, Dare to Lead. Random House, 2018
  2. Amy Edmundson, Building a psychological safe workplace.
  3. Margaret Heffernan, Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work. (Opens with the superchicken example if you want to learn more!
  4. Simon Sinek, Start with Why.

Your Grad School Guide: Developing leadership skills

Hi, reader! We are excited to announce that going forward, this column will no longer be called “the Grad School Guru” and is now “Your Grad School Guide.” Our new name reflects that while the blog is written by a single, anonymous author, we are culling information from sources across the UW to provide you with the best advice and resources. 

Everything else will stay the same. When you submit a question anonymously to Your Guide, you can still opt to receive a personalized response that will not be shared with anyone else. The methods of submitting a question, the kinds of questions answered and our dedication to providing you with resources and support to thrive in grad school will remain the same. Happy asking! 

How do I get into a leadership position? I am returning to graduate school after nearly two decades in the workforce in assistant positions. I am ready to move upward in my career, if someone will just give me a chance. I am afraid that even when I graduate, I will still be seen as only qualified for assistant roles. Please help, any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

This blog post was developed based on input from Dr. Bruce Avolio, Mark Pigott Chair in Business Strategic Leadership. 

Hi there,

Thanks for reaching out to your Grad School Guide! I am excited that you are looking to take on leadership roles in your work and I hope I can give you some advice to help you get there.

I have lots of tips and ideas in store for you, but I also want to encourage you to reach out to folks at your campus Career Center or an advisor within your department. They may have additional ideas that are more tailored to your needs within your discipline and career. I’ll list the contacts for the career centers at the end of this post. Your department’s website will have more information about your graduate program advisor or graduate program coordinator.

I asked Bruce Avolio, professor at The Foster School of Business and director for the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, about what makes a good leader. Dr. Avolio says “there are successful leaders without these qualities, but the prototypical leader that most people highly respect have many of the following”:

Personal qualities:

  1. Open to new and different experiences and perspectives. Has a global mindset.
  2. Attitude: positive, hopeful, optimistic and humble.
  3. Authentic and has a strong moral identity. This means acting in a moral and ethical way and being just, highly self-aware of how you impact others, and transparent. Willing to take hard stands on important issues.

Orientation to work:

  1. Motivated to lead! This means you are interested in influencing others and spending the time to learn how to do so. Motivation to lead is usually a starting point for leadership.
  2. Work ethic: conscientious, proactive, resilient and efficacious.
  3. Able to suspend judgment and gather more data before coming to conclusions.
  4. Willing to sacrifice self-interests for the good of the larger group.
  5. Future-oriented in terms of goals and objectives.

Interactions with others:

  1. Empathetic and understanding. Can take other people’s points of view
  2. Builds trust and goodwill by being consistent and following through
  3. Uses positional power in socially constructive ways
  4. Intellectually stimulating and encourages others to see different scenarios, assumptions and different world views
  5. A good steward

Here are some of Your Guide’s ideas for developing these skills:

  1. Identify individuals you respect in current leadership roles and even previous leaders. Observe these people and read about them to see how they show up for leadership and how they treat others, what they focus on, their core values and beliefs, their role models and mentors, etc. (This task is directly from Dr. Avolio!)
  2. Practice being empathetic to a coworker, peer, teacher or someone else.
  3. Reflect on your morals and values. You may find journaling, doodling or list-writing helpful with this. Think about what you care about and how these values will inform your leadership.
  4. Take a class in active listening.
  5. Join a Registered Student Organization (see links below) and take a leadership position within the club. If you don’t find a club that suits your interests, start your own!
  6. Volunteer with a local non-profit in a position that allows you to flex your leadership skills
  7. Look for opportunities (formal or informal) to mentor an undergraduate student in your field.
  8. Read a book written by someone with a different background or identity from your own to broaden your perspective.

Phew! There are a lot of ideas here, but if you pick only one and set an intentional goal to work on it this year, I am confident you’ll make astounding progress!

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself! Starting grad school is a big, important step in taking more leadership roles. Celebrate the things that you are already doing to advance your career and put some trust in your process.


Your Grad School Guide


Postdocs Rock! Here are 5 Reasons Why

Postdocs are vital members of the University of Washington ecosystem.  During National Postdoc Appreciation Week (September 18-22), we here at the UW Office of Postdoc Affairs (OPA) in the Graduate School wanted to point out just a few of the many reasons why:

  1. Postdocs are often the first point of contact for graduate students and undergrads working on a research team, and provide countless hours of mentorship and guidance to this next generation;
  2. Postdocs are energetic teachers of classes, touching even more graduate and undergraduate students here on campus through their seminars and lectures;
  3. Postdocs often contribute substantial intellectual ideas and strategies to their research groups, making our world-class research at UW even better;
  4. Postdocs are often essential contributors to faculty projects, grants and publications in ways that help their faculty mentors be even more productive;
  5. And finally, you postdocs are here at UW, investing in your own professional development, and we applaud your investment in your future!

For all these reasons, the OPA, in partnership with the UW Postdoctoral Association (UWPA), recognizes and honors the over 1,000 postdocs working across our 3 campuses in every School and College.

Since 2009, National Postdoc Appreciation Week recognizes the significant contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to U.S. research and development. Institutions from across the country participate by holding special events. In 2010, this week was officially recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives.

We will be celebrating you on September 20, 5:30-7pm in the Health Sciences Building Rotunda.  If you are a postdoc – or a postdoc supporter – join us for tacos and beverages.  The OPA will be hosting an orientation with key campus resources that same day 3-4pm and a workshop on planning your pathway to independence aimed at early stage postdocs 4-5pm.  Both of those sessions are in Health Sciences T-531.

Join us, and thank a postdoc!


Women’s March

Emily Kalah Gade, Ph.D. candidate in political science, explained in the Washington Post how the Women’s March may lead to social movement.

Postdocs, You Are Public Thought Leaders!

You have ideas what you are passionate about, and you have spent years cultivating expertise. Now, how do you get your voice heard? How can you work to advance the issues? How can you influence change?

In mid-April, the Office of Postdoc Affairs co-hosted a workshop from the OpEd Project, a national effort to diversify the voices we hear in public conversations. The facilitator Michele Weldon has 3 decades as a public thought leader through her books, articles, and media work. Certain key points stood out from the workshop:

  • Own your expertise. You are an expert in _____ because ______. What are you a go-to person for? On what basis do you have credibility in this area? Own it, even if it feels there are others around you who are more established, more credentialed, more famous. We need YOUR voice and perspective in the world for real impact to occur.
  • Personal promotion isn’t self-serving (only), it is working toward public service. That is, you aren’t just “tooting your own horn” when you say your voice matters, you are bringing attention to issues that are critical to you.  The bigger your sphere of influence the greater impact for change you can have. Reframe your approach to self-promoting activities like tweeting, blogging, writing pieces for public audiences/radio spots to building your sphere of influence for issues you care about. And, as a result, you distinguish yourself in what may be a crowded field.
  • “If you say things of consequence, there will be consequences. But the risk and alternative is to be inconsequential.” (OpEd Project saying) Anticipate nay-sayers. As you practice your response to those who will say “who cares” and “why you”, you can be ready to stand your ground with calm, clear and respectful confidence. Sometimes these doubting voices come from within our own heads. Practice saying the same calm, confident response back when that voice of self-doubt or imposter syndrome rises up. #OwnIt
  • Make a pitch to an editor. Craft a tight 4-5 sentence email that showcases the following:  So what? Why you? Why now? What’s the contribution?  Why this outlet? And then sign it with your full name and affiliations. Then cut/paste your 600-800 essay right below that (no attachments).  Editors are busy and they want to scan what you have, not take an extra step to ask for it.   You can use a descriptive email subject line: Timely commentary on ______.

We know that peer reviewed publications are still the coin of the realm as far as your own academic career goes. But how do you get people to read your peer reviewed publications? How can they make the kind of impact you’d like? Amplify your work by pairing peer-reviewed publications with pieces you write for the public conversation or using social media to get your work in front of more people in your professional networks.  Many postdocs have created their own professional websites to gather together examples of their research and engagement activities, to reflect more of who they are. Websites, coupled with social media, can expand your reach and help you stand out from others in a job search or otherwise crowded space. See Future of Ice Initiative postdoc Sarah Myhre’s website as a terrific example of this, and check out how she features both peer reviewed research and news media highlights. Have a good example of your own?  Send it to us, we want to feature it in an upcoming newsletter!

Write to Change the World.

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Originally posted on April 21, 2016.