It has always seemed strange to me that to become an academic leader, you have to first become a respected expert in your field. This is despite the fact that being an expert in a narrow field of research is unlikely to have any bearing on your ability as a leader. When these researchers then stop or scale back their research to prioritise their management role, it may seem like a waste. I certainly feel a certain level of resentment when a single faculty in one University gets to capitalise someone who was once serving the world with their groundbreaking ideas. This jealousy is fuelled by the fact that I'm pretty sure the faculty could have been led just as well by someone who knew nothing about solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or whatever it was that they once specialised in.
But apparently, academics only respect leaders with impressive publications and citation metrics. Perhaps people are worried that a lack of academic credibility might be used to undermine a poor leader? But when I think of the academic leaders that have inspired me in my career, I have no idea how much they've published or how influential their research once was. I often don't when know what field they are in. These things just aren't relevant. I want leaders who understand the needs and priorities of those they lead as much as the hierarchies they serve. I want leaders who can give me the academic freedom I crave and the space to do the best work of my career. I want leaders who can create opportunities that will stretch me to go deeper and further in my career than I might otherwise dare to go, so I can really make a difference. I want to follow someone whose expertise is being a leader.
In this series of blogs, I have explored the unique characteristics needed by leaders who want to facilitate impact. I have written about the importance of authenticity, valuing uncertainty and understanding your purpose. So far, I have encouraged you to look inward to become the kind of empathic leader that can facilitate impact. Now I want to invite you to look outward, to the role of the empathic leader in connecting people and agendas. This crucial skill is under-rated in academia because of our obsession with specialist academic expertise. We value depth of expertise in a narrow subject area, not breath of knowledge or the ability to connect ideas or people. We value original contributions we can publish and claim as our own ideas, more than the contributions that arise when we bring people and ideas together to find new ways of solving intractable challenges. Sometimes old ideas make a big impact when they are applied to new problems; sound, not original thinking, is the prerequisite to impact.
I call this skill “bridging expertise”. There are two types of bridging expertise that you might want to cultivate as a leader who wants to make a difference:
Ideas bridging, where you integrate insights from multiple disciplines and sources, and in the process, you either generate original new insights or piece things together to see a big picture that nobody else can see. This can be restricted to the research process, or it can extend to impact generation processes, for example by integrating different sources of knowledge in decision making processes (which it has been shown can lead to more effective and durable decisions), or evidence synthesis to inform policy decisions; and
Network bridging, where you connect with new people and networks. You do so, deeply enough to see the world through their eyes, and as a result, you see things differently. And you connect widely enough to learn from multiple perspectives, and create new opportunities between people who you can see have something to gain from the connection.
There is a unique form of imposter syndrome that you experience when you are trying to
work in the spaces between disciplines or knowledge communities. Any attempt to pretend that you are part of either community would be an imposition, and yet you are drawn to the places where ideas collide invisibly between these groups. The collisions are invisible because both communities think they are talking about different things with their different words and framings, so they see no connections between their ideas. But because you have learned to see through the jargon that these communities wall themselves in with, you can see things others can't, and you are curious. There are insights to be found and solutions to be developed in these liminal spaces that neither group could see without your help.
But there is a problem. As an interdisciplinarian or knowledge broker, you may be disrespected and dismissed by the communities you seek to work with. This is not because you are any less skilled, insightful or committed (although this is regularly implied). What's really going on, is that you aren't one of them. You're not in the group, don't know the language and traditions, and so don't conform to the expectations (or self-imposed limitations) of the group. As a result you are at best seen as irrelevant, and at worst viewed as a threat. Finding confidence in your ability to borrow, integrate and adapt ideas to generate your own insights is difficult under these circumstances. But this is the lonely path that you may have to take if your primary goal is to generate impact, rather than to just add to the accumulation of knowledge in your discipline.
I started on this path early when I decided to use what I'd learned in the developing world about stakeholder participation, in the UK. As soon as I started working in a developed world context, my work was unpublishable in development journals and irrelevant to the international development community. And yet, what I eventually published in Biological Conservation was also ahead of its time in the UK and seen as a threat by many of the organisations who were claiming to engage their stakeholders in decision-making processes, but were in practice only giving people outside their organisation very limited power to tweak their plans.
These ideas had been applied for years in the development community, who had long ago started learning lessons from Western-driven development agendas that apparently knew what was best for the local communities they sought to serve. It was entirely uncontroversial that Western conservation charities should work with local communities to co-design programmes that delivered on local needs as much as their conservation objectives. And yet, in the UK there was still a mentality that conservation should follow the (natural) science and avoid being derailed by the interests of local communities (as much as any other vested interest). The perspectives of uneducated stakeholders who didn't understand the science or appreciate the importance of conservation were simply not valid and so not worthy of attention. The idea that you might actually give decision-making power to such people, who might use it to do something other than the one "right" thing that science would tell us to do, was downright irresponsible.
Being a conservationist who champions the voices of local communities has made me friends and enemies in unexpected places. I get on with people who many conservationists hate, because I am genuinely interested in their perspectives, and as a result many conservationists don't trust me. These people might have a vested interest or be conspiracy theorists, but most conspiracies start with a grain of truth, and however much you may disagree with someone, it is possible to find common values behind even the most objectionable beliefs if you dig deep enough. In common with most of the climate sceptics I know, I too don't want to feel guilty about my lifestyle, and I want to belong to a group of people who make me feel special and are passionate about the same things as me. Simply listening to these sceptics’ interpretation of the science is fascinating for me and cathartic for them. I'm not going to convert them to seeing the world as I do through good arguments or presenting evidence, because their beliefs are fundamentally anti-evidence and they won't believe a word I say as a climate researcher anyway. But by listening and validating their grain of truth, and whatever values I can get on with, I can create the connection they were looking for and now they are listening to me as though I was one of them. If this sounds controversial, listen to this podcast episode where I discuss talking to conspiracy theorists in greater depth and some of the evidence behind this empathic approach.
The point I am trying to make with this example is that ideas bridging is about seeking out different ideas and keeping an open mind to what you might be able to learn - even from a conspiracy theorist. Sparks of ideas and connecting thoughts can come from anywhere. Your task as a leader who wants to see the big picture and bring people together around new ideas that could make a difference, is to always be in listening mode, and to listen deeply.
One of the problems with networking, is that it only seems to come naturally to extroverts. If you are an introvert or just don't like networking, can you become the kind of "bridging expert" I'm arguing is at the core of being an empathic leader?
My answer to this question is "yes", because the goal is connection. While having lots of contacts can be useful sometimes, the quality of your relationships matters more than the number of people in your address book when you actually need help with something. If you need anything that requires more than a couple of minutes of someone's attention, you're unlikely to get anything meaningful back from a crowdsourcing tweet. You need to go to people with whom you have social capital.
When I left Newcastle University, I needed to find someone who might stand in for me as lead supervisor for one of my PhD students, doing the paperwork while letting me continue to operate (effectively) as lead supervisor from my new institution, so that the student would experience minimal disruption. I needed someone who was both willing to do me a favour with the paperwork and who would trust that I would continue to play the lead supervisor role despite getting no credit for this work at my new institution. Rather than putting out a tweet or emailing the research group, I went straight to the one person who knew me best and who I had bent over backwards to help whenever they'd asked me in the past: my line manager. We both trusted each other enough to know we could make it work, and all I needed was one person. To become a network bridger, you need to cultivate connection, and that can start with a single person.
But how do you make sure you are connecting to the kinds of people who, by helping, might be able to make a really significant difference? There is an element of strategic prioritisation here. I have a small number of people who I make sure I am in close contact with, and do everything possible to make time for them and help them whenever they ask. One of them got in touch today - he's a “VIP” on my phone so I couldn't miss the notification of his email, and he wanted to talk urgently about an opportunity. My diary is currently full for the rest of the month but I have a writing day tomorrow that I've diligently protected from diary appointments. However, despite saying "no" to countless meetings and invitations for tomorrow to protect that writing time, I told him to ring my mobile whenever he gets a chance tomorrow so we can chat through his opportunity. The problem is that this is time consuming and so you can only ever do this for a small number of people. To give you a flavour of some of the people I regularly connect with and try my best to add value to, these include:
Someone who leads a team in Scottish Government on natural capital policy
Someone who heads up a team working on peatlands in Defra
Someone in charge of sustainability for a large multi-national company, who is well connected across the business and policy worlds, and helping lead the corporate sustainability agenda
The small team in the UK arm of an international conservation charity who are well connected across the third sector and peatland policy worlds
Someone in charge of a UN programme on peatlands, who is influencing global policy agendas, and through the UN has the capacity to inform and help shape peatland policies in countries around the world
Taken together, by investing in these relationships, I'm able to add value to people who I have grown to deeply respect and care for, who have the capacity to have impact across the policy, third sector and business communities in Scotland, England and internationally. This isn't to say that I won't help others, but I only have limited time, and I can't proactively reach out to add value to everyone who might benefit from my help, so I have focussed my limited time and energy where I feel I can make most of a difference.
Each of these people are "bonding" connections. Although seemingly very different, and to me, each of these individuals shares a passion for the environment and wants to tackle the climate emergency by using evidence to work across the policy, third sector and business worlds. Most researchers have bonding connections with other researchers in their disciplinary or institutional networks; it is easy to work with people who see the world in fundamentally similar ways to you. Bonding connections are important because there is power in numbers, and it is easy to build deep and wide networks with like-minded people. Because these people are like you, it is easy for them to empathise with you when you are in need, and as a result, networks of people with bonding connections often have a high degree of reciprocity. However, if you want to lead change, there are two other types of connection that you need to cultivate.
"Bridging" connections occur when you cultivate relationships with people who are very different to you. Typically people think about the ability to create bridges of trust between different worlds, and for most researchers, building relationships with stakeholders is how you will create bridging connection. But it can go much deeper than just creating bridges between the worlds of scholars and charities, or science and policy. The hardest and most rewarding bridges are those we build to people who are fundamentally different, even objectionable, to us. Learning how to trust, and be trustworthy with people that we instinctively distrust requires advanced empathy skills. This is not just being friendly to people to build social capital that you can “cash in” at a later date, while criticising them behind their backs. This is understanding and respecting people enough that you speak well of them behind their backs, even when you know others will judge you. I work on highly contested issues, and have sought to build bridges of trust with people on each side of the debates I research. In conservation, my home discipline, it isn't always "cool" to work with a company like Nestle or protect the interests of farmers, given the impact both groups have had on the environment. But while it is easy to demonise a company or group, it is much harder to think ill of an actual farmer who is telling you everything they are doing to nurture nature on their farm, or a sustainability officer who wants to transform a company's supply chains to protect and restore nature. When you connect with these people's passion, and see their heart, you can't help but build bridges of trust, even if you disagree with some of their beliefs and practices. Once you get to a person's values, it is difficult not to find something that resonates with you.
Finally, to achieve impact, leaders have a unique responsibility to become "bracing" connectors, creating connections between different hierarchical levels within their networks, for example between a farmer or academic with a great idea and a policy maker who might be able to act on that idea, or connecting early career researchers with senior managers so they can make their views heard. Being a leader often gives you access to places where you meet other leaders, and even cold calling another leader can get you a meeting if you are in a senior enough leadership role yourself. There is often an instant empathic connection with other leaders because of your shared experience; everyone knows it is "tough at the top". The bigger challenge is to create equally trusting relationships with people in lower hierarchical levels, who may instinctively distrust you as one of the "elite" who is probably "out of touch" with people like them. No matter how much humility you bring to such relationships, it is impossible to ignore the power dynamic, and you have to consciously undermine and give away your power to break through these barriers. In the context of this power dynamic, it is important for you to make the first self-depreciating move, refer in passing to your own experience when you were at their level in the hierarchy, or share something vulnerable enough to emphasise your shared human experience. For example, when I am training PhD students, I refer to my own experiences as a student and share about my ongoing struggles with anxiety - I was once in their shoes and to this day still experience some of the struggles they might be facing.
Being an expert at finding expertise
The lessons you learn from people in different disciplines and worlds, and at different places in hierarchies, can bring you insights that are very different to the kinds of ideas you get from spending time with your bonding connections, who are similar to you. Argyris and Schon (1974) described this as "triple loop" learning, where you are forced to re-evaluate your assumptions, values and beliefs, and find new ways of learning, as opposed to the cognitive understanding of single loop learning, or the critical thinking of double loop learning. Some of the people who have most deeply challenged how I think about and do research have been researchers from developing countries or western development studies researchers who taught me to see my own prejudices and assumptions, and those of the western knowledge systems I was embedded in. This has been crucial in understanding my own positionality as a leader, and especially as a middle-aged, white, male, English-speaking, heterosexual, able-bodied academic leader (listen to the podcast episode I mentioned earlier for more on this).
To achieve impact, bridging skills are more important than any academic expertise you may have spent years honing. But surely, I hear you ask, our academic credentials are what makes us credible, and we want our impact to be based on solid evidence? Yes, but this doesn't have to be your evidence. As long as it is robust evidence, you can draw on any body of work that is relevant to the change you want to see. In fact, in many cases, basing impact on evidence synthesis is a much more robust foundation for impact than basing it on your own latest findings, which may be contradicted by future research. By synthesising evidence from across a body of work, you are able to work out what you can say with certainty, and which findings might only apply in certain contexts.
And you don't even have to synthesise the evidence yourself - you might simply connect experts in your network with people who are looking for evidence-based answers. I was recently asked to advise an investment bank on a new land acquisition programme and agreed to the job despite knowing little about the topic, but then organised a roundtable event with over 60 experts from the investment, policy, landowner, third sector and rural communities. I managed to get £10K to pay a colleague to write a literature review, which we sent to these experts ahead of the workshop, and we then revised the report, incorporating their insights. I still feel woefully ignorant on the topic, but I know enough now to provide sensible advice, and when I reach the limits of my understanding, I now have a network of people to go and ask for help.
It feels risky and vulnerable to not have all the expertise you would ideally want, but remember that you don't have to be the expert. You just have to have enough expertise to know who to ask for help, and with the collective knowledge of your network behind you, you can achieve far more impact than you could ever achieve alone.