“A leader is someone, anyone, who takes responsibility for finding potential in people and processes, and having the courage to develop that potential.” – Brene Brown


The Research and Development People and Culture Strategy published by BEIS back in July gave a clear message that: Leaders at all levels need to have the right skills to support their teams in developing their careers, and to lead them through major transitions and transformations. It goes on to say: “People are often promoted to leadership roles because of their expertise and reputation within their field. Less consideration is given to the skills and behaviours needed for leadership of people and teams.

Sound familiar?

The Strategy speaks of a commitment to “ensure leadership and management skills are actively developed and supported in talent programmes and in grant holders’ terms”. But navigating the transition between being a technically competent, excellent researcher to becoming an excellent leader of research and researcher can be challenging for any emerging leader. So what distinguishes leadership from being a great manager or very competent at what you are doing?

Leadership involves change, movement and looking forward. It requires strategic thinking, taking people with you and inspiring them to achieve a vision, but there are other factors at play too. Leadership is a habit that develops over time. It is not a skill or theory we learn on a one-day training course which then equips us to lead. We develop habits by, firstly, noticing the need for change, the benefits of changing, and the costs of not changing. Then we practice something new (thoughts, feelings and actions) little and often. We notice a benefit and this motivates us to continue.

Back in one of the very early ‘Bridging’ sessions I facilitated for the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network, we explored formal theoretical models, considered what leadership actually means in a research context and tried to elicit some of the skills, traits and behaviours that make leadership in research effective.

I strongly believe the FLFs and Innovators in our Network already know what good leadership is, because they have all experienced it in some way, however small or fleeting. They know what it is about that leadership that helped them develop their potential. In the session, participants considered someone whose leadership has had a real impact on them: someone who has enabled their success. In groups, they reflected on what made that leader impactful: what they did, how they behaved, what they said? And how that felt?

As participants fed back their list of impactful leadership traits to the group, we found they converged around some common themes:

  • Creating a positive space
  • Building trust
  • Investing in wellbeing
  • Providing opportunity
  • Developing others
  • Giving recognition

What strikes me (and repeatedly does so when I facilitate these discussions) is that the list of behaviours, traits and skills identified were predominantly related to emotional intelligence. The impactful leadership the participants described focused on people, rather than on tasks and knowing everything. As an emotional intelligence (EQ) practitioner, I’m naturally rather passionate about emotionally intelligent leadership. The good news is that research shows there is a positive correlation between the measured emotional intelligence of leaders and their performance in a range of success factors.

Would you consider yourself an emotionally intelligent leader? I define EQ as:

  • Noticing how you are feeling
  • Naming it: What’s going on? Why might you feel like that? What are the impacts on your effectiveness as a leader and researcher?
  • Choosing: What is the best way forward? What could be different? What, if anything, needs to change to be more effective?
  • Communicating: Letting others know (if appropriate) or communicating and being honest with yourself

The good news is we can develop our EQ. If you want to learn more, we’ll be launching more leadership workshops in 2022 but, in the meantime, here are two books I’d recommend:

  • Dare to Lead, by Brene Brown (a very easy read and full of ideas for practices you can try)
  • The EQ Edge, Steven Stein & Howard Book (describes elements of EQ and gives practical activities to develop EQ)

“One of the most important applications of EQ is helping leaders foster a workplace climate conducive to high performance. These workplaces yield significantly higher productivity, retention, and profitability, and emotional intelligence appears key to this competitive advantage.” – The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence, Six Seconds

Take a look at our list of impactful leadership skills below, it’s not exhaustive but it’s a great start.

  • What would you add to this list?
  • Do you see areas of strength or which you need to develop?
  • What one small thing could you do in an interaction today that would make your leadership more impactful?

Impactful Leadership download – PDF


You have to be forward-looking; it’s the quality that most differentiates leaders from individual contributors…

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner: The Truth About Leadership

Leadership requires us to know where we are heading, scan the horizon and plan for the future. If we intend to lead others, then we must have an inspiring vision with which to motivate and explain ‘The Why’ of what we (and they) are doing. If everyone is pointing in the same direction, it can save time, confusion and conflict. In this Bridging Session with Tracey Stead, members of the FLF Development Network explored how taking different viewpoints help us become more strategic in approach.

Tracey explores three viewpoints in this blog:

  1. Looking back
  2. Looking down
  3. Looking around

Viewpoint 1 : Looking back from the future

Imagine a positive view of yourself five years from now… a date that’s far enough away that you could have already had a significant impact with your leadership (on yourself, on others, on your research) but not so far away you don’t recognise the world around you (the technology is the same – there aren’t flying cars and household robots).

You’re at a conference, surrounded by your collaborators and peers, and you bump into an old colleague who asks, “What’s new since we last met back in 2021?”

How would you respond?

When you imagine yourself to be in 2026 looking back from there to 2021, how would you answer these questions (take some time to actually journal your responses):

  1. What are the most important aspects of what you’ve done and how you have been (in life and work) over those five years?
  2. What have been your key outcomes? What impact have you had on lives, the environment, society? What has changed in the world because of you and your work?
  3. What are the key outputs of which you are most proud? What is the tangible evidence of what you have achieved? Papers, people, products, events, ideas etc.?
  4. What has been your impact on, or contribution to, your peers, colleagues, department or discipline area? Your friends and family? How would they describe you?
  5. To have achieved all this, what has had to change about your beliefs, behaviours, thoughts or actions?

Answering questions like these helps us become more strategic by shifting our focus forward out of our current activity. Standing in the future, believing we have achieved success, and looking back at those successes helps us get out of our own way and reflect on the things that helped us to get there. When we stand in the present looking forward and thinking of all things we need to do there is a tendency or temptation to only see obstacles or problems.

The FLFs in this Bridging Session found it’s not necessarily easy to do this but is well worth the effort:

  • Exhausting at the thought of it, but rewarding.
  • Really useful, feel like I need to do it more often.
  • I can definitely see that it is valuable but confess I find it really, really hard!
  • It is very helpful. Motivating.
  • Useful to force me to get off the wheel and reflect.
  • It helped lift me out of current challenges/struggles and look forward/get excited about my project again.
  • Thought provoking.

Why not use this viewpoint…?

  • …to connect with and communicate your future vision. Use this shift in perspective with the people you are leading… “Let’s imagine we are there, now let’s think about how we got here.”

Do you find this kind of thinking difficult?

You’re not alone if you do.

We need to build this ‘muscle’ and practice to train it. Having a vision and articulating it is a skill to learn… so we need to train ourselves, and expect it to be difficult to start with.

Still finding it hard? Then look at role models and mentors… what have they done that you admire? Ask them how they got there. What can you ‘borrow’ to add to your own vision?

For young leaders, it can be difficult to envision the future, and few devote any time to this discipline. This can be a barrier to success.

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner: The Truth About Leadership

Viewpoint 2 : Looking down from above

Research can feel ever expanding, with opportunities and challenges appearing all the time. Plans can go off track, more interesting things come up, we answer one research question and several more replace it, we read a paper and then realise there are ten more that we want to read. As FLFs we are in demand, our colleagues want to involve us in their ideas and opportunities. So how do we keep our goals in mind and orient ourselves amongst a multitude of everyday tasks?

In another shift of perspective, stop, rise above (much like being in a helicopter!) and look down asking yourself, “What is going on here?” Getting a clearer view of what’s happening right now, will help you regroup and carry on planning.

Use these questions to help you take stock of the now.

  1. What is your aim or objective? Think of something you’re aiming for in 6-12 months such as writing a paper, developing a member of staff, or putting together proposal.
  2. What is your current progress score in achieving that objective (out of ten) and why?
  3. What is enabling progress? Think of all the things that are helping you to succeed.
  4. What is getting in the way of progress?
  5. If I had a magic wand I would…
  6. What should continue happening?
  7. What must stop happening?
  8. What must start happening (or happen differently)?
  9. To be successful in implementing these things I need support/interest/contribution from… When and how will you communicate with them?
  10. My biggest priority is… What cannot wait?

Download the PDF stock take diagram

An essential skill in leadership is actually being able to communicate with yourself – so writing down what is spilling around in our heads in this way forces us to be honest with ourselves.

Just touching on this task for ten minutes, the FLFs in the Bridging Session uncovered insights into their current situation which will help them plan next steps:

  • I found this is a really useful prompt for breaking down barriers to a task.
  • [It’s helped me] question specific mindsets.
  • [I need to] protect team members.
  • [I need to prioritise] work on decisiveness – it’s slowing me down on a few things.
  • COVID messes with what my priorities should be.
  • I need to give PhD students/PDRAs more ownership over “my” fellowship ideas to run with them.
  • [My] main issue was my lack of prioritisation and getting sucked into other things – taking me away from the main goal.
  • [I need to] allow more time for forward planning.
  • I am one of the things getting in the way of progress (e.g. procrastination, focusing on obstacles rather than the big picture etc.)
  • [I need to] be kind to myself and accept that the landscape has changed and that this change is outside of my control. This does not prevent strategic thinking.

Why not use this viewpoint…?

  • …as a personal stocktake for ten mins every week or fortnight, or each quarter in more depth
  • …in student/supervisor relationships – ask students to complete the questions in advance with the focus, “How is your progress on your PhD?”
  • …with research collaborators, bring responses to meetings to share and discuss
  • …alongside the Triage Test to help you assert your priorities – see our Triage Test blog post from earlier this year

Viewpoint 3 : Looking further and broader

As we more forward, towards our vision and into our leadership, we need to reflect on what in the wider landscape might affect us and our progress towards our goal.

When we are very early in our research careers, we can be very successful ‘minding our own business’ and getting on with developing skills and generating outputs. As we become more senior, transitioning into leadership and spending more time in our ‘helicopter’ looking toward the horizon, we must get into the habit of being much more aware of the challenges and opportunities that surround us – politics (and Politics), policies, other people’s strategies, international events etc. All could help or hinder our success.


Being strategic means getting into a position where we know about these broader horizons – working out what we can take control of and planning how to redirect our strategy – then sharing this breadth of awareness with the people we work with. We need to find ways to turn the things coming up in this wider landscape into positive influences on our progress rather than negative, or to change our strategy to navigate around the immovable obstacles.

A useful and well-known tool is the PESTLE technique – a generic business tool developed to facilitate strategic thinking and horizon scanning – to explore political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental considerations.

Download a PDF of the PESTLE technique

With so many horizons to scan, we need to become as switched on as possible without spending time we don’t have keeping up-to-date. Where might you need to broaden or adapt your reading and conversations to do this? Think about what you can build into your daily routines so you are equipped to know what is coming? Here are just some ideas from the discussions and comments in the workshop:

  • Delegate – ask someone in your team to read a concordat/policy from a funder or your host institution and feed back what it means for your research group.
  • Get to know people on boards and committees and ask them for insights.
  • Connect with senior faculty and have strategic conversations in the corridor.
  • Regularly check the news webpage of governmental departments related to your research.
  • Befriend/follow someone who’s a Twitter-devotee.
  • Get involved in Government Select Committee reviews and calls for expert evidence.
  • Explore policies and agendas in the countries where you will be collaborating.
  • If you’re new to the UK research landscape, get to know how research works in this country. This guide from Imperial College London may help.

Why not use the PESTLE viewpoints…?

  • …to uncover what might influence the success of your research plan
  • …as a horizon scanning exercise with collaborators
  • …with students/postdocs who are planning a long period of research
  • …Why not do a PESTLE analysis of your FLF?

Insights, ideas and resources from Tracey Stead and participants on the FLF Development Network’s Bridging Course on Being Strategic

Every day I find myself saying ‘Yes’ to something that just doesn’t support my goals.”

“I’m overwhelmed with current commitments and suspect I should have said ‘No’ to many of them.”

Sounds familiar?

Research is ever-expanding in nature and there will always be opportunities coming your way and people knocking at your door, particularly as you are an FLF and people in your department want your involvement. There will always be new, interesting, exciting (or the dreaded ‘mandatory’!) opportunities popping up over and above your day job and the things you’d planned to do.

So, when faced with these commitments and opportunities, how do you keep your mid- to long-term goals in mind and consciously make choices that support them. This is a vital skill for leaders and one we explored in the second Bridging Session on ‘Being Strategic’.

The Triage Test

Setting triage criteria for your work and research opportunities can help you focus on the urgent and important, much like a doctor in the emergency department.

You can use your triage criteria to:

  • choose opportunities to spend quality time on – ones that will lead you towards your goals
  • identify tasks that might distract or delay you from your goals – so you can decline or minimise your commitment

Set Your Criteria

A triage test is best applied to medium or long-term goals – what do you want to have achieved by this time next year?

Devise three questions to help you evaluate whether engaging in a new opportunity get you to where you want to go (or let you lead the life you want to lead)? Be clear how your choice will enable your future vision and the desired outcomes you want to achieve.

Here’s a triage test I’d been using to decide what projects to take on:

  1. Will it enable me to build my networks?
  2. Will it mean I can spend more time working from home?
  3. Will I still be happy doing this in a year’s time?

Use your test for a year or so then (when you ‘hit’ your next horizon and refocus towards future plans) adapt your triage criteria and start again. Back when I created this test I was travelling the country delivering workshops, but post-COVID my needs have shifted and these criteria are due a rethink – guess which one will be changing first! (post edit: I am now using a new criterion: Can I share the load with someone else?).

What would your triage criteria be?

What three YES/NO questions would you choose?
Some great examples were suggested by you in the Bridging Session:

  • Will it mean I can develop leadership skills?
  • Will it lead to some funding?
  • Will it raise my profile or enhance my reputation?
  • Will it involve working with people that inspire me or I have fun with?
  • Is it within or outside my ‘6 hours per week maximum on non-FLF tasks’?
  • If I had to start tomorrow, would I make time for it?
  • Is it REF-able?
  • Have I already committed to other things of a similar nature?
  • Will this give me positive energy?
  • Am I doing this because I hate saying no?
  • Is this aligned to my personal values?
  • Will this impact on stakeholders I want to have impact on?
  • Will I be working with people who won’t get in my way?
  • Would I still be happy to be doing this in a year’s time?
  • Will this disproportionately occupy my headspace?


Ask for specific details

Don’t accept or decline offers immediately – ask for details so you can fully assess the opportunity against your triage criteria.

Always explain

In the interests of being strategic, telling people why you are accepting (or declining!) and explaining how it connects to your vision/where you want to go is a great way to influence and train other people into knowing what you want to be doing. If they are enlightened about what you want to in your future they might think twice about asking you or might tailor their request the next time.

  • “I am accepting this because this is what I want to achieve in the next year and this helps me to do it.”
  • “I would like to say yes to this but in the next year/6 months this is what I am focussing on – feel free to ask me after that time and I may well be able to say yes.”
  • “At the moment I can only focus on some things and here’s what I’m focussing on, so I’m declining your opportunity.”

Can’t say no?

One question raised in the Bridging Session was, “But what if I can’t say no?” How do you respond to those offers or ‘mandatory’ events or projects that it’s not possible or politic to decline?

First, think of a way you can ask for the opportunity to be adapted so it gives you more of what you are looking for.

“I want to contribute to the Department and realise we all need to pull together so I’m happy to accept this opportunity. But what would really make me happier is if…

  • I could have another colleague working with me
  • it could involve me taking the lead in something so I develop a leadership skill
  • it would involve me taking this to another research institute/writing something so it builds my reputation
  • or something else in line with your triage criteria”

Then, if you have to say yes to something that can’t be adapted to better support your goals, be absolutely clear about the level commitment you can offer and your main priorities.

“I am saying yes because I want to be a helpful person but I can only give it X amount of time ( this amount of attention, this level of quality) because I am focussing on these three things (related to my criteria/goals) at the moment.”

The Triage Test… I find it a great tool to help me evaluate opportunities, stay focused on my goals, avoid overwhelm, and, really importantly, to feel in control and be more assertive, positive and strategic no matter whether my involvement is going to be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’!


Download a PDF of Tracey Stead’s presentation from the Being Strategic Bridging Session

Download a PDF copy of the Triage Test diagram

Download a PDF text-only version of the Triage Test diagram

Access the recording of the Being Strategic Bridging Session #2 (accessible for members of the FLF Development Network)