Poor Leadership…but what lies beneath?

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The person who does wrong, does wrong to themselves. The unjust person is unjust to themselves...
— Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher)

I once told the story of a friend who almost gave up on a promising career in science because of her PhD supervisor’s poor leadership. As a lecture and an article, the story resonated. For the people who reached out to me afterward, it was as if I’d bottled the feeling of déjà vu and placed it in their hands. They’d heard this all before. Same story, different setting. Whether it was the tap on my shoulder after a lecture, or an unexpected email from someone who read my article, stories of poor supervision were returned to me many times over.

Stories of leaders behaving badly are in no short supply; the responses to the story I told convinced me of that. Quite understandably, it upsets those of us who hear examples of poor leadership, those of us who would like to believe we’d never do anything so tyrannical. The problem is so unacceptably commonplace, in fact, that the Royal Society of Chemistry will soon launch a helpline to support students and staff who have themselves been bullied.

Whilst there are many cases of leaders and supervisors taking drastic, despicable, and embarrassing action to further their careers at the expense of the students in their care, one question is often missed:

What else is going on?

The natural and eminently reasonable reaction to stories or experiences of poor leadership is anger. For some victims, alas, even depression is triggered. But if the best revenge is to live a happy life, we have to ask what’s at the root of a supervisor’s questionable actions. They were once a student. What’s going in their story that led them to be another case study in poor leadership?

If the person serving you coffee or food doesn’t grace you with a five star smile and a world-class service, it’s probably not your doing. They could be stressed, upset, angry, lonely, worried about bills, worried about the job, worried about kids, uncertain of their future, longing to be doing what they want in their spare time. So, too, might the minds of some supervisors be overcast with many such worries. Their better judgement in how best to supervise students and staff may be clouded by something we can’t see. A recent report commissioned jointly by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust explained that job control, levels of autonomy, role clarity, and overwork can all contribute to stress and eventual burnout for staff in research environments.

This will sound like I’m urging everyone to give poor leaders the benefit of the doubt. I’m not. Not always. However, it’s worth asking the question every time we hear one of these terrible stories of bullying or mismanagement:

“Poor leadership, yes…but what lies beneath?”

We may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg. We may be facing a mask that hides a thousand worries.

How, then, can we build an environment in which all supervisors’ most supportive leadership skills can emerge untainted?