15 essential skills to lead your research group - title

15 essential skills for leadership in science

When young scientists start thinking about leading a research group, they feel overwhelmed by the number of transferable skills they have to learn for a career in science. It is crucial to understand which research leadership skills are essential and where to begin.

Group leaders must learn leadership skills – but which?

Leadership in science is similar to leadership in business or politics. There is now considerable agreement that young scientists should develop their leadership skills for a career in science

We have developed the following list of skills thanks to Yves Soen, former HR manager at Hasselt University. 

This list serves as a map of which skills are essential to becoming a successful group leader in science. When you aim to improve your scientific leadership abilities, you should include them in your leadership skills development plan.

We think these skills are essential for most team leader positions in academia, industry, and the public sector.

After extensive discussions with other colleagues, we would like to suggest following the two lists of research team leader skills for a science career outlined in the table below.

Basic and advanced leadership skills for a career in science

Basic leadership skills for a career in scienceAdvanced leadership skills for a career in science
Performing a SWOT analysis of yourself and your institution/company
Create a leadership action plan
Conflict management
Giving constructive feedback
Defining and communicating your vision
Motivating people
Situational leadership (Blanchard)
Effective communication
Complex project management of multiple projects
Intercultural leadership
Transformational leadership
Effective delegation
Empowerment of staff
Change management
Finance for non-financials
Effectively handling administration

The skills are in random order. Thus, they are not ranked according to importance. 

As expected, there was considerable debate about which essential leadership skills should be termed “basic” or “advanced” for research leaders. We suggest starting with the list in the first column because you need some knowledge and experience with these skills before learning the more complex ones in the second column. 

Performing a SWOT analysis of yourself and your institution to get to know your strengths and weaknesses and your wishes and talents is a good start.

Reading through these lists is overwhelming for most people. It helps to keep the following points in mind:

All scientific leadership skills are interrelated

The good news is that when you develop one of these skills, related skills also usually unfold. 

For example, developing communication skills typically also improves conflict management and communication of your vision (if you have one). 

Learning effective delegation as research leaders may also increase the motivation of your group members and enhance the management of multiple projects.

Training research leadership skills never ends during a career in science

Understanding that all these scientific leadership skills must be developed for the rest of your science career is crucial. Leadership in science is not something you learn in a weekend. No intelligent research leader would claim, “I have learned enough about communication skills” or “I finished studying complex project management.  I do not have to learn anymore.” 

Thus, training these essential leadership skills will continue as long as you are in a work environment – but you also have a lot of time to develop expertise.

All these skills should be trained routinely and systematically for a science career

To learn continuously, it is important to practice these skills regularly – for example, by following a course every 2 to 6 months. 

You can do this in person or online. Many institutions and companies offer courses for future research team leaders on a regular basis. 

The two lists above may also help you develop a systematic approach because there is a certain probability that you neglect important skills outside of your comfort zone. 

It is always a good idea to focus on your strengths as a research leader. However, a course can often be an eye-opener for discovering new strengths, even in contexts outside of your comfort zone. Therefore, you should attempt to learn and develop each skill on the above lists sooner or later. 

I wrote another more detailed article about the typical strengths and weaknesses of leaders in science that might give you some orientation. It includes scientific leadership skills examples and excellent books that might help you improve your skills.

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  1. On improving the ‘map’ on leadership:

    You mentioned it already “if you have a vision” – for me, leadership is constantly looking for inspiration to do better, having a broad perspective by looking for ways to reflect on issues of both your (research) specialty and the whole of society – lectures and books of respected people in your field, but also theatre, movies and other art forms; talking to people from other countries and cultures to understand the topics you are interested in more depth and width so that your solutions to the problems you want to solve are always more creative and as well more realistic

  2. Once essential skill is to instill assurance in the team about yourself. I learned this amazing technique (at inlingua New Delhi) of instilling assurance on the person you are communication to by listening them well. It really has helped me leaps and bounds to communicate better

  3. Leaders have great discipline and they want and inspire others to follow the same path. Such skills and qualities are really important in our daily life. It’s because our future and success depend on, how we invest money and time in everyday life. And to invest money and time wisely, we need leadership skills.

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