While research is the major focus of your postdoctoral position, there are other responsibilities that begin to pop up. As you evolve into your role, you’ll start finding yourself mentoring young researchers, collaborating with other postdocs and helping new lab members learn their way around.

Naturally, these responsibilities test your leadership skills, and help to refine them. But finding ways to accelerate your growth in leadership can have a positive impact on your future and a positive impact for those around you.


postdoc leadership guide plus free post doctoral survival guide e-book


Why is it Important for Postdocs to be Leaders?

Emerging responsibilities in a lab are part of the puzzle. As a postdoc, you’re on a journey to grow as a researcher. The only direction is forward, and as you move forward, you will face other demands. So what are the major reasons to improve your leadership skills?

Preparing for Industry Work

According to Smart Science Career’s article “Do Postdocs Need Leadership Skills,” 90% of postdocs will eventually find positions outside academia (Hendrix, n.d.). Depending on the company and the position, that transition into industry work could require extensive leadership experience.

Running a Successful Lab

Running a lab successfully requires a lot of skills. For instance, good communication skills, good organizational skills, time management skills, conflict resolution skills, listening skills and more. As you look closely at some of these skills, they start to overlap with traits of good leadership. Refining some of these traits will ensure your lab runs smoothly.

Creates Opportunities

One of the reasons leadership is so important, according to the National Postdoctoral Association, is because it creates more opportunities for a postdoc.

Given how competitive research life can be, seeking more opportunities and obtaining more marketable skills is necessary for future success.

As you improve your leadership skills, you will grow into a good networker, mentor, project manager and team leader in the lab, which will also be valuable to future labs.

What Makes a Postdoc a Great Leader?

“Leadership is a choice, not a rank,” – Simon Sinek (motivational speaker and New York Times best-selling author).

There is a difference between a boss and a leader. A boss can use rank as a motivator whereas a leader inspires action in others through compassion and self-sacrifice. A leader will not hesitate to support his or her peers by helping out, advocating and sacrificing. At the end of the day, according to Simon Sinek, good leaders make others feel safe, and that safety fosters satisfying productivity.

Indeed.com lists other traits that make a good leader. Among them are:

  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Active listening
  • Reliability
  • Dependability
  • Creativity
  • Positivity
  • Communication
  • Team building
  • Flexibility
  • Integrity
  • Decisiveness

We also provide a more comprehensive list of leadership qualities. Use this list as a reference or even for a self-evaluation to identify areas you’d like to improve or have improved.

Leadership self evaluation guide for postdocs, graduate students and principal investigators in life science research

How Can Postdocs Improve Their Leadership Skills?

We’re laying out some steps postdocs can take to help improve leadership. Most of these steps can be carried out simultaneously. And it’s important to keep in mind that developing yourself as a leader takes time. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll get it wrong. And that’s ok. We’re not perfect.

1. Mindset:

The first step in improving your leadership skills is simply recognizing that you want to improve. Furthermore, it’s time to establish a more impactful why. Right now, the self-serving reason for improving your leadership skills would be to help your career. That is definitely a good and motivating reason, and it will help you become a good leader.

But if you’re wanting to become a great leader, the why has to be more meaningful. Lean on your core values for this. Are you already a compassionate person? Do you already care about your lab mates? Perhaps you have seen a bad lab culture and want to advocate for your peers. Those reasons are going to help you act more consistently and with more integrity as you become a great leader.

Remember, also, that personal leadership development takes discipline and introspection. This is also part of the mindset idea.

Therefore, to get yourself in the best mindset for leadership, determine why you want to be a good leader, why you want to be a great leader, what your core values are and commit to this journey.

2. Evolve:

Postdocs wanting to develop or improve their leadership skills must recognize that this takes time. As years go on and you are more practiced, some parts of you will not be the same – they’ll be sharper, more refined, better.

You’re going to make mistakes as you go along, but if your goal is to become a good leader, especially for the sake of your peers, be patient with yourself. Continue to evaluate yourself for your strengths and weaknesses.

Look at what works, what makes people happy, what upsets people, what is important in times of crisis, etc.

Ask for feedback. Though it might be hard to hear sometimes, asking for feedback gives you the opportunity to find out where you need to improve. Remember not to just ask for what you’re doing wrong, but also ask about what you’re doing right. Good feedback should also include ways your peers think you could improve, not just what to improve.

3.Determine Your Leadership Style:

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has the different leadership styles broken down on his website. What you’ll find is that you might demonstrate examples of each of these styles, but there is one that really resonates with you (Robbins Research International, n.d.)

Leadership style diagram - displays how your leadership style might be composed of multiple styles, but with one dominant style


a. Democratic Leadership:

The democratic leadership style values the thoughts and expertise of the team. Just as you would think with democracy, this leadership style likes to find a consensus among their peers. Democratic leaders often ask for opinions and feedback.

There is a downside to subscribing solely to this leadership style. When faced with a time-sensitive obstacle, the democratic style takes too long, and a consensus might not bring about the best choice. In these times, a leader must be flexible, and venture out of their natural style.

b. Visionary Leadership:

A visionary leader is a big-picture thinker who can look at something and see many more possibilities within. Not only are they good at spotting potential, they are great at communicating this and inspiring innovation.

c. Coaching Leadership:

A leader who has a coaching style is going to position themselves as more of a guide, bringing out the best in everyone. These leaders are connective and instructive.

One of the pitfalls of this leadership style is the risk of micromanaging a group. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the people within your team like more direct guidance, but it can exhaust your own energy as you spend time developing each individual.

d. Affiliative Leadership:

This leadership style puts the team first, and connects themselves with each member. According to Tony Robbins’s website, this is a great leadership style when trust has been broken in an organization because this leadership style focuses on building trust and developing emotional bonds with the team. Affiliative leaders are good at communicating with the group and being available as a peer to their teammates.

One of the downsides to this leadership style is feedback can often be absent. People within a team need both positive and negative feedback to understand how to improve and grow into their own potential.

e. Pacesetting Leadership:

Pacesetting is an actionable leadership style. These leaders have higher standards for themselves which often inspires the rest. If your team is composed of self-starters, this is an excellent leadership style because it prompts actions, and trusts in the expertise of the team.

This type of leadership is cooperative, where a pacesetting leader is willing and able to do the same task they might delegate to someone else.

The risk with this leadership style is that it relies on the independence of the group. If you have a team that needs more direct guidance, this is not going to be the best style.

f. Commanding Leadership:

This is a tricky kind of leadership style, and is not ideal in many group types. However, it can be ideal in certain situations that demand immediate action.The commanding leadership style basically relies on the authority of the position. In this case, people do as they are told because they are told to do so by someone in charge.

In times of crisis where a decision must be made and an action must be taken, this is ideal. However in long-term settings it can decrease group morale.

g. Servant Leadership:

This is one of the most ideal and universal styles of leadership. Here, a servant leader puts emphasis on the greater good – usually the good of the group. It’s the kind of leadership you see in movies with sacrifice and tough calls. Servant leaders understand their purpose and values and use that to guide them in bettering their peers, their organization or their communities.

While Simon Sinek doesn’t outright say this in his talk “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” he leans toward this idea. He emphasizes how great leaders build trust within their organization, make people feel safe and will sacrifice to ensure the best for their peers. Sinek equates it to good parenting. Like parents, good leaders want the best for their people, for them to grow, and for them to be better than they are.

When determining your leadership style, there are a few things to consider: what works best with your personality, what kind of obstacles you face, and the composition of the group, for example. Remember, each of these styles are not suited for every situation. While you might have a leadership style that works best for you, there will be times when you need to lean into another style.


4. Explore leadership resources:

There are many websites, podcasts, books and YouTube videos about leadership. Start by finding some go-to resources and bookmarking them. If you prefer to watch or listen, build a YouTube playlist or find a reliable podcast.

One important thing to remember is to put what you learn into action. Sometimes that’s hard to do. So one bit of advice is to find a theme in something you’re reading or listening to, and focus for a week or two on that theme, being more self-aware of when you have demonstrated that quality or when you missed an opportunity to do so.

For example, if you were reading about empathetic leadership, make it a goal to cultivate that empathy within yourself, to be more aware of people’s situations and put yourself in their shoes.

5. Attend leadership courses and workshops:

Universities are starting to become aware of the need for leadership training for postdocs. However, that need is still largely unmet. Thankfully, while there might not be something directly available in your department, universities as a whole often have resources. Some universities have leadership centers where you can learn about upcoming workshops. Some of the different departments might have a function that you can sit in on.

Outside of your university, browse the internet for any upcoming courses, whether online, local or something you might have to travel to. You can also use apps like Meetup to find leadership events in your area.

6. Demonstrate good leadership:

Great leaders lead by example rather than by instruction. For example one piece of advice to a first year teacher goes something like this “Don’t set any rules for your classroom that you won’t follow yourself.” For instance, if students are not allowed to have drinks in the classroom, then the teacher should not be seen with a water bottle on his or her desk.

To demonstrate good leadership, understand your own values and make that foundational in everything you do. Good demonstration must also be consistent – be a person of your word.

7. Leadership opportunities outside of the workplace:

Depending on your lab, you as a postdoc might find yourself in a situation where you’re not able to lead as much as you’d like to. Maybe it’s a smaller lab, or maybe the culture isn’t quite built for this. That presents a challenge when you are trying to develop your skills and put things into practice.

When faced with this situation, it’s time to look for opportunities outside of work. This could be in the form of a volunteer job, or perhaps using your expertise to assist a PI in a collaboration project or even something unrelated to research (website building, social media). In these situations, you show yourself as a servant leader by helping, and you can demonstrate qualities of leadership like delegation, listening, project management, communication, etc.

We are aware that the available time for a postdoc is limited. Therefore when an opportunity arises, if you can’t fully help, try to at least apply yourself in some way, even if it’s as small as providing a little advice. Down the road, when you do have more time, this approach will have fostered a connection that could lead to more opportunities in the future.

8. Look for a mentor or for examples around you:

It’s likely you have seen at least one great leader in your life. Maybe this was a teacher, maybe it was a bus driver. But there was something about this person that made everyone feel good and could get things done with just a smile. That special something they had was maybe contagious, and you found yourself learning something just by subconsciously observing them.

This happens all the time, where good people come in and out of our lives, and they leave us with so much more. Now that you want to develop your leadership skills, you’re going to have to seek these people. Pay special attention to those around you, even if they’re distantly connected to you. For instance, if you’re in a large lab where you only see the same four people except at the lab meetings where everyone is there, and in the lab meeting there is just this one person who is a natural leader, don’t be afraid to approach them.

Connect with model leaders or even look for a leadership mentor. Your mentor does not have to be in the same field as you. A leader is a leader no matter what.

9. Embrace failure:

As a scientist, you are very familiar with failure in the lab. But this also occurs in leadership. It’s rare when failure is so detrimental that nothing can be recovered. In most cases, it’s a mess-up, maybe a costly one, but then you go back and try again.

The same goes with leadership. It could be that you had a bad day and snapped at someone. It’s going to happen. Don’t let this discourage you. Instead, apologize, admit what you did was wrong, listen to their feelings and move forward.

As a leader, if you are going to embrace failure in yourself, then you must also embrace it in others. Your team will make mistakes, huge ones, and as a great leader, your role is to be there, support them and in tough times let them depend on you. That’s not to say a little tough-love is out of the question. People need feedback. But they also need assurance.

10. Be encouraging to others:

Leadership is not about your authority or personal accomplishment. It’s about the greater good, and the vision at hand. Good leaders make their peers feel safe and recognized. Part of doing that is being encouraging.

As a leader, you don’t want to break anyone’s spirit or tear them down, nor do you want to foster a culture that embraces something like that. Instead, your goal is to push for the best in everyone. It takes a lot of emotional control sometimes, but championing your peers helps them be confident in themselves and drive better results.

11. Be collaborative:

When it comes to being collaborative, we’re not just talking about the scientific side of things. Collaboration in leadership means acknowledging you are not a one-person-show. To do things well, you can’t do it all yourself. Of course, considering that you do things very well in general, it can be hard to delegate some of the work to others. You want the vision to remain intact and for the finished product to be as good as envisioned or better. Occasionally, you’re going to have a situation where there is too much on your plate and you have overestimated your abilities. This is especially going to be the case as you move up and take on more responsibilities.

Thankfully, there are people among you who are also proficient in different things, and they can help you out. Be willing to give up some of that control and trust in your peers. It will take a lot of those leadership qualities to assure the job gets done right, like clear communication and active listening. You might not get what you expected back; however with a good collaborative relationship, you can rework so that both sides are happy.

Furthermore, collaboration also means making yourself approachable for your team when they also are faced with a situation where there’s too much going on.

In the end, collaboration means supporting each other and using your resources and knowledge to do so.

12. Never forget your purpose:

Always remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Research life is hard, and leadership in research life is harder. Keeping your vision and purpose always in front of you will help you during the toughest of times.

Often we go through periods of disillusionment, or derailment. It’s remembering your purpose and keeping your eye on the prize that will keep you motivated and help you stay true to yourself.

13. Be a good follower:

You may have heard this saying before, “being a good leader means being a good follower.” It’s a common saying because it has a lot of truth to it.

When you think of following in order to become a good leader, there are a few directions to go:

  • Following model leaders: There are going to be people around you who are model leaders. Following traits you respect can help you develop your own leadership.
  • Following superiors: Even as you climb the leadership ladder, you will most likely still have some kind of authority over you. Demonstrating your respect for that authority to your peers sets a good example. Sometimes you don’t always like the task delegated, or it doesn’t make sense, but acting with integrity can make you an impactful leader. (This advice is not speaking to situations of oppression. That’s a different situation).
  • Following your peers: Each member of your team will have his or her own unique strengths, skills and expertise. As a developing leader, you can bring out their expertise by allowing them to lead when their experience calls for it. This is especially important in collaborative situations.

14. Learn to communicate better:

Communication skills aren’t just vital to leadership, they’re vital for healthy relationships. When it does come to leadership, clear communication is key. If something bothers you, the last thing you want to do is react emotionally. Instead, clearly communicate why something bothered you or did not meet expectations.

It’s also not good to sugar-coat or be passive aggressive or try to stifle a confrontation. The goal is simply clear direction on what went wrong and how to fix it.

For example, let’s say you asked an undergraduate in your lab to build a log of all the lab’s instruments for calibration tracking. And what you got back was not at all what you expected. Perhaps they sent you a Word document listing the instruments out when you really wanted an Excel spreadsheet listing the instrument name, vendor type, last calibration date, next calibration date and a space to sign off. It would be unwise to let your frustration control how you communicate with this undergraduate student. Instead, good communication means sitting down with the student, explaining the project and expectations more clearly and asking questions to determine whether they understand.

15. Stay positive:

Our emotions and energy, especially as a leader, can be contagious. If your goal as a great leader is to foster a collaborative, productive and healthy environment for your lab, then it’s important to demonstrate positivity.

That’s not to say you won’t have your bad days, weeks or even months, but in general, try to look for silver linings, smile at your peers, be inviting and approachable.


leadership style for postdocs - postdoc survival guide free ebook download get interactive worksheets, lists, career advice and articles.




Leadership Improvement Resources

  1. Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty Free HHMI book download
  2. The National Postdoctoral Association Core Competencies Reading List
  3. At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory, Second Edition
  4. Harvard Business Review
  5. Leadership and Management Skills Course for Postdocs
  6. Postdoc Leadership Program (Cornell)
  7. Postdoc Leadership Workshop: Leadership and Management


References

Downard, B. (2018, May 18). 101 Best Leadership Skills, Traits & Qualities - The Complete List. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://briandownard.com/leadership-skills-list/

Emory University. (n.d.). Making the Most of Your Postdoc Experience. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.med.emory.edu/education/postdoctoral-training/career-development/postdoc-experience.html

Floriddia, E. (n.d.). The Benefits of Seeking Leadership Opportunities as a Postdoc. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://neuronline.sfn.org/professional-development/the-benefits-of-seeking-leadership-opportunities-as-a-postdoc

Hasan, S. (2019, December 05). Top 15 Leadership Qualities That Make Good Leaders. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://blog.taskque.com/characteristics-good-leaders/

Hendrix, S. (n.d.). Do postdocs need leadership skills? Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://smartsciencecareer.com/postdoc-leadership/

Indeed.com. (2020, May 06). Leadership Skills: Definitions and Examples. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/resumes-cover-letters/leadership-skills

Kalnins, L. (2020, March 27). 9 Easy Tips On How To Improve Leadership Skills. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.unfinishedsuccess.com/9-easy-tips-how-to-improve-leadership-skills/

National Postdoctoral Assocation. (n.d.). The Core Competencies. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.nationalpostdoc.org/page/SixCoreComps

Robbins Research International. (n.d.). 7 Common Types of Leadership Styles, What Type of Leader Are You? Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.tonyrobbins.com/what-is-leadership/leadership-styles/

Sinek, S. (2019, January 18). Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://simonsinek.com/discover/why-good-leaders-make-you-feel-safe/

Webb, A. (2014, February 03). Why don't they tell Postdocs this Stuff? - Secrets to a Successful Science Career. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://thenode.biologists.com/why-dont-they-tell-postdocs-this-stuff-secrets-to-a-successful-science-career/events/