Leadership is something of a buzzword these days, a concept which has seeped into academia from the corporate world. But what does it mean in the university “business”. It’s the sort of thing people highlight in their job documents; it crops up as an interview question. But what might leadership mean to early career academics, many of whom don’t lead the projects they work on, let alone teams or departments? What might it mean if, like many of the researchers we work with, you struggle with the feeling that the higher education system is a game, the rules of which are difficult to navigate and set by others?

What does self-leadership mean for academics?

Self-leadership means a proactive approach to getting the most out of ourselves and those with whom we interact. Note that the responsibility is on us to take the initiative and not be purely selfish in our intent. Second, self-leadership entails an outward-looking mindset – being conscious and careful in sharing our ideas and opening up our networks.

This means that we need to take care to inquire, not presume, where the other person is coming from. Try asking a colleague, “What’s happening for you right now?” Listen to what they say. Sounds easy, right? People tell us all the time that they do this as a matter of course. But our first self-leadership hypothesis is that finding out what’s really happening for the other person is uncommon and takes conscious discipline.

Finding out what’s important to another person at a particular moment in time is not giving up your right to think or act differently, but it’s ultimately a more open, effective starting point for your conversations and subsequent working relationship.

Networking is the most important part of leadership

Our second concept is about sharing and building networks. The best tactic when networking is to ditch the pitch – that is, avoid those dreaded, self-absorbed elevator pitches which countless sources insist you must have.

It’s true that we need to have a hoped-for outcome in mind when networking, eg being considered for a job, starting a collaborative project, gaining access to resources, etc. The initial motive for approaching someone is often self-interest; it’s partly how we decide whom to approach.

But what if, once we had started the conversation, we let our self-interest go and genuinely inquired about the other person’s reality? What if we listened carefully to what motivates them and what they are trying to achieve? With this knowledge, it’s so much easier to identify shared interests, align yourself with others’ aspirations, and make effective job applications.

This is the second self-leadership hypothesis: sometimes, you can best achieve your goal by putting others’ aspirations first – but only if you know what those are.