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5 Leadership Lessons from Teaching

classroom

Photo:asterixtom

“Help!”

Well, my email subject line actually read “Looking for advice/help.”

I’d just found out that I’ll be teaching a course on International Marketing (yay!) this coming semester. Once my initial euphoria died, I realized teaching a semester-long (14 weeks) course to a class of 21-year-olds was not something to be taken lightly. Hence the call for help to buddies of mine, who’s been molding young minds for more than two decades. The advice I got ranged from, “Oh, you’ll do great!” (fat lot of good that did) to a 90-minute primer on what teaching a course meant. As always I took profuse notes as my friends waxed.

When I went through my notes, one thing struck me – how much teaching a class well, required some of the same skills that any good leader (or startup founder) would need. So if I replaced the words “teaching” with “leadership” the advice was just as useful.

Here’s a quick summary of them.

Discover your leadership philosophy It’s important to understand and more importantly articulate both to yourself and your teams, what your leadership philosophy is. This isn’t as much what is right – Servant leadership or Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun – as much as knowing what works for you best and sharing it. If nothing else, answer for yourself, why are you a leader and how you plan to go about accomplishing this?

Understand your personal style Even leaders who share a common philosophy of leadership can have widely varying personal styles. My own personal style, regardless of the role I play in a team, is one of action – despite my oft-stated intent otherwise. I have seen folks who have a directive even aggressive style be just as successful as those who tend to ask questions and nudge. Recognizing your personal style and how it fits in with your leadership philosophy is important to help your team and yourself succeed.

State your expectations It’s important to articulate what you as a leader expect from your team. Whether what needs to get done, or how it needs to get done, stating this will save everyone a lot of grief. The more explicit and specific you are in articulating your expectations, the more likely they will be met. This is especially important when you take over as the leader of a new project, team or company.

Build on your strengths & share your experience As Peter Drucker put it “Make strength productive.” Building on your own strengths and sharing your past experience would help you be more successful and will give your team a sense of where you’ve been and lend credibility to your inputs. You need to balance sharing your experience against a tiresome telling of war stories.

Recognize people are different A team, whether it’s one you inherit or build, will likely consist of people who are widely different, in aspirations, attitudes, capabilities and working styles. If you have a large enough team, you’ll see something that approaches a Gaussian distribution – even in small teams, especially ones that you inherit, you will see a spectrum of personalities. Recognize this and keep the old adage Different Strokes for Different Folks in mind. You are less likely stumble and get frustrated.

I’d love to hear what your own experience has been both as a teacher and a leader.

Be Bold and Reach for the Stars – lessons from a mentor

Do you think I could get a bottle of coke?

Gareth Thomas

Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy of the U. S. Department of Energy and the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Hardly words that change your life. But they did in my case. Gareth Thomas, then director of the National Center for Electron Microscopy at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) and professor at the University of California at Berkeley was visiting our college at the Banaras Hindu University, when he asked for this bottle of coke. During the two days of his visit I had been unusually reticent as the rest of my classmates clamoured to get the “great man”‘s attention – I of course covered it by acting as though I was too cool to chase after him.

Long story short, I was tasked to get him that bottle of coke. I ended up jumping in his car en route to the airport. We made small talk as he asked me what I was interested in (damned if I knew). He suggested that I read his recent papers on ceramic composites and send him a note. Which for once I did – working like the devil – and in turn he offered me a research assistantship at Berkeley.

Gareth was a larger than life figure, whose impact on hundreds, yep hundreds, of graduate students has resulted in an entire generation of microscopists populating the best research schools across the US and UK. Working closely with him, taught me some critical life lessons.

Be bold Gareth grew up in Wales and as a Welshman in 1950’s Cambridge it was not easy to study and work in England . So like many before him he headed west to America and rapidly carved a niche for himself in metallurgy initially and electron microscopy eventually. He never let anything stand in the way of his vision of becoming the #1 in his chosen field, culminating in Berkeley and LBL becoming the go-to place for Electron Microscopy. The story of how the Center was built despite LBL sitting on the San Andreas fault and the slightest movement would make microscopy impossible is a whole another blog post by itself. So here was this fire plug of a man, who didn’t let a new country, new field, minor matter of earthquake country and money stop him from building a Centre that would add prestige to a University that boasted more Nobel Laureates than most other nations! Think big and go for it was a lesson Gareth lived.

Be imaginative By the time I showed up at Berkeley, we had probably the only one of two research groups that still worked on Iron and Steel (this was the early eighties, and classical metallurgy seemed passé!) We had graduate students doing some interesting work and our papers had to be peer-reviewed. Research was still competitive and so we were in a fix. Gareth located research groups in South Korea and India (the only places where iron and steel research was still happening) and reached out to them, so that a critical mass of researchers could be built up. Similarly when some of our early work in ceramics, aluminum nitride for instance was having trouble getting funding, he went across to Toshiba and other corporations in Japan to fund our work. To keep things on the up and up, he let his grad students do some of these as projects directly with the company as consulting gigs, so archaic University rules around corporate funding of research programs didn’t stop work.

Balance business and science Very early on Gareth recognized that doing good science or engineering required serious funding and that government alone would not be enough. Also while research is critical, its applicability in the real world was just as important. While other schools and sometimes other professors at Berkeley prided themselves on not working on anything applied, Gareth showed us that it as never OR – good science or good business but it is critical as engineers and scientists for us to solve real world problems or direct our research in a way that would have real world applicability. Of course the proof of the pudding lay in industry being willing to fund our research, hire his grad students or license the technology. The number of Gareth’s students who are today in critical research and decision-making roles in both government and industry is living proof of his success in balancing business and science.

Thank you Gareth for all that taught me, outside of microscopy and material science. I’m grateful to have met you and worked with you. I miss you.

Gareth passed away earlier this February.


This is the eighth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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