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Lessons Learned: Developing Leadership Skills

Lessons Learned: Developing Leadership Skills

Important leadership principles that can only be taught from experience

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1988. She began working for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., in the fall of that...

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Many young employees looking to grow into leadership and management positions seek out formal training opportunities to build key skills. There are many excellent sources for this type of skill building—both internal at many corporations and by external training companies. However, the lessons learned “in the classroom” are only part of the skill set needed to be most effective as a manager and a leader. This article shares some of those “lessons beyond the classroom.”

Leadership vs management

One of the first lessons taught in most courses looking to build leadership and management skills includes Peter Drucker’s quote on the differentiation between those two terms: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” The corollary to this maxim, learned outside of the classroom, is that there is no single “right” way. There are only decisions, followed by actions taken once the decision is made. It is natural to believe that there is only one “correct” decision, or at least one pathway that should be preferred over all others. Because of this default thinking, many leaders spend much more time deciding which is the “right” pathway than they spend on determining what are the actions that should then be taken to ensure success. In reality, there is no single pathway to a successful outcome. In fact, there are many possible successful outcomes. True success is determined more by the steps that are taken to ensure a desired outcome once a given decision has been made.

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That’s not to say that the actual decision is not important. In training environments, it is emphasized that you must use a clear decision-making process that details what information is used and how a decision is made. This is indeed critically important. The corollary, however, is that there is rarely enough information to allow a leader to make a decision with 100 percent confidence. 

Scientists like data. Scientists will generally strive for enough data to have statistical confidence in a conclusion. In managing and leading a scientific business or organization, though, there are simply too many unknowns and factors that are not under the leader’s control. While a well thought-out and transparent decision-making process is absolutely a requirement, the leader must strive for a “good enough” decision and then, as noted above, focus more on the actions that need to be taken to ensure a successful outcome. The work of a good manager and leader begins with the decision—it does not end with it.

Speaking multiple “languages”

Once a decision is made on a business or technical pathway, the work begins on the details of the strategy and its implementation. Many leadership training courses emphasize that most strategies fail in implementation. This truism is often discussed in the context of the importance of taking enough time to develop a strategy with sufficient information to make the right decision. 

Related Article: What Makes a Great Leader for the Lab: 12 Leadership Qualities of Effective Laboratory Managers

The lesson beyond the classroom, however, is that most strategies fail in implementation because of untested and unarticulated assumptions. There are numerous assumptions that individuals make every day—assumptions around the meaning of a word or phrase (or acronym); assumptions around the definition of “technical success” or “market success”; and assumptions around the difficulty of solving certain types of problems. Those developing a strategy and those responsible for implementing it often make very different assumptions, even based on the same data. Those assumptions need to be surfaced and then rigorously tested before a strategy can be effectively implemented. This is part of the reason that cross-functional experience is so important. Someone who has spent time in manufacturing as well as R&D or marketing can speak the “language”—and understand the assumptions—of multiple functions. This translation ability is key to surfacing those unspoken assumptions.

“Influencers” in the lab

Many leadership training courses spend a fair amount of time discussing techniques to build influence skills. Effective influence skills are needed within the organization you lead, with your immediate superiors, and with peers and superiors outside of your chain of command. Influence skills begin with the ability to clearly communicate your goals and priorities, and the rationale behind them. But to truly motivate others to align with your priorities, you must be able to convince others that supporting your goals will help them achieve their own.

This maxim is easiest to understand when looking at how to motivate your own organization. The difference between a good organization and a great organization is the discretionary effort employees choose to expend. A good leader will connect the goals of the organization with the goals of the employees within it. Their goals might be compensation or reward related; their motivation could be driven by opportunity for skill enhancement or advancement in the organization; or the goals could be connected to a sense of pride and meaning in their work. The job of the leader is to understand what motivates each individual and tie the attainment of the leader’s goals to the attainment of the employee’s goals. While this may sound like manipulation, the difference is follow-through. If the leader’s goals are met, then the employees’ goals must be met as well. Managing expectations and promising only what can be delivered is critically important.

Similarly, to sell an idea to someone who can provide critical support or resources, you must describe your goals in a way that aligns with what that other person is trying to achieve. Again, authenticity is key. If you can’t find an authentic alignment of goals, then this is not the person you should be seeking support from—or perhaps your goals are not aligned with the organization. Having a shared sense of purpose is critical, regardless of additional personal agendas. 

Flipping this lesson around, never forget that your first goal should always be to make your boss look good. Again, while this sounds cynical, it is in reality pragmatic—your goals should align with your boss’ goals. If they don’t, then why are they your goals to begin with? Always make sure you and your superiors have that alignment, and remember the importance of your role in helping them achieve their goals.

Honesty is the best policy

The final lesson for this discussion centers around communication. This article has already touched on the importance of communication in effectively surfacing unarticulated assumptions, in influencing the behaviors of those around you, and in alignment of objectives. The “lesson beyond the classroom” is that while transparency is important, a leader has to know what can be shared, as well as when and with whom. This sort of editing, particularly from a leader to the broader organization, is often what sows cynicism at best and distrust at worse. You may be trying to keep your organization or a colleague focused on the issue at hand or on what they control. They, however, know you are not telling them everything. Authenticity is the key to maintaining your credibility and trust. Be honest when there are things you simply cannot share due to confidentiality concerns or context. Be willing to take the time to explain the restrictions you are under. Promise—and deliver—full answers to questions when you have done your research or are allowed to share. Above all, do not lie. Honesty is a sign of respect.

There are many “lessons beyond the classroom” that leaders and managers learn throughout their careers, often by trial and error or through a trusted mentor. Continue to learn through experience and look for the opportunity to pass those lessons on to the next generation. Your experience is your most important classroom.

For additional leadership tips from Sherri L. Bassner, view her Lab Manager Leadership Digital Summit presentation, “10 Leadership Tips They Don’t Teach in Management Class” at: