Leadership. It’s this big, lofty word that’s been thrown around from the time I was in elementary school. I remember teachers saying to us: “Girls, make sure you decide who’s the leader of your group!” and “You’re in grade six now, and as the oldest in the school, you’re the leaders – the younger students will be looking up to you!” but for some reason, for the entirety of my school career, we never defined leadership formally.
My first idea of leadership revolved around the notion that leaders were “the boss”. They were the ones in charge of other people; they made decisions that others would follow without hesitation, and their position as a “leader” gave them power. As shallow as that sounds to me now, it’s not surprising how I came up with that idea. I’m sure we can all recall the game we played as children known as “Follow the Leader” whereby an individual is chosen (or sometimes self-proclaimed) to stand at the head of the line. He or she is known as the “leader” of the group and the other children line up behind the leader. The “leader” then moves around and the other children must mimic the leader’s actions. Anyone who fails to follow the leader’s actions are out of the game.
I only realize now how this game is a literal representation of what leadership meant to me as a child, and also how scary it is to extrapolate the real-world consequences of this narrow definition of leadership. It’s scary because we can see regimes around the world where failure to abide by the “leader’s” commands is an endangerment to personal safety.
In the “Follow the Leader” game, the leader has power over the actions of his or her “followers”, regardless of whether followers want to follow these actions. This game begs me to question why we introduce the concept of leadership to children this way. Why are we taught as children that leaders are controlling, powerful and authoritative? When there is a leader, why are the non-leaders are automatically “followers”? And finally, why must followers abide unfalteringly to the leader’s every command, to a point where questioning or doubting the leader is seen as grounds for exclusion from the group?
As I grew older, I became aware of other forms of leadership. Looking back, I was incredibly privileged to have attended an all-girls school which presented me with opportunities to not only be a leader, but to observe leadership coming from many different people. There were formally elected leaders at my school; the school principal, school captain, prefects, and club heads, but then there were also students at my school who were informal leaders, leading others simply by example. These students were individuals, which by the conventional definition of leadership, we would not normally think of immediately as a “leader”; they tended to quieter, more reserved, yet by choosing to stay true to themselves through self-leadership, they were able to influence others to do the same.
It was perhaps in my last year of high school where I learned the most about leadership. I was elected as head of our school’s symphonic orchestra, a role I had run for because of my love for the ensemble. I realized that not unlike the “Follow the Leader” game we played as children, a leader does have a certain amount of “power”, but that power comes with the great responsibility and duty to be a reflection of the group he/she represented. The “power” is granted to the leader by the group which he/she leads. It originates from a place of trust and belief that the leader will bring positive change to the group. During my time as orchestra head, my main priority was to listen to the other ensemble members, particularly to the concerns of the younger students.
When I was applying to the Laidlaw scholarship, I was mid-way through my first year of medicine, and it was during a time where I wasn’t thinking much about leadership. I had graduated high school with a relatively strong understanding of the varied forms of leadership possible, but quite honestly, I wasn’t sure where leadership would fit into my new role as a medical student in a large university. In my application essay, I talked about how leaders were “torches” who gathered people together and provided the support needed to go from goal to action. I also mentioned the vulnerability a good leader shows in order to establish a connection with the individuals in the group they lead.
My first leadership weekend away with Laidlaw last March was phenomenal. I especially enjoyed the chance to meet other students who were so well-spoken and articulate in their beliefs. I felt that I was able to connect with my Laidlaw cohort in a way that was different from a typical interaction that I would have with St Andrews students outside of the program.
The most memorable activity we did during the leadership weekend was the conversation we had on leadership versus authority. The entire Laidlaw 2019 cohort was present, along with some members of the Laidlaw team and we discussed what “being a leader” meant to us. There was a definition of leader proposed by someone which said leaders had the ability to change someone’s actions or influence individuals to do something that they wouldn’t have otherwise done. Initially, I found this definition of leadership to be quite different from the way I defined leadership for myself. From my previous leadership experience as head of orchestra at school, I saw leaders to be more akin to representatives of their group – someone who collated the ideas, concerns, and expectations of the people they lead. The idea that leaders changed the actions of their “followers” was new to me.
We were then asked by one of the Laidlaw team members to raise our hand. Confused, but following the request, we hesitantly obliged. We were subsequently asked whether the Laidlaw team member had demonstrated leadership in this scenario – he had been able to change our actions, influencing us to do something that we wouldn’t have otherwise done – which did satisfy the definition of leadership previously offered to us, but was this an example of leadership though?
The turning point of this discussion was when a fellow Laidlaw scholar made a point to distinguish leadership from authority. It appeared that leaders and people in positions of authority both had the capacity to influence others, but a key difference lay in the fact that people followed leaders voluntarily, whereas people followed people of authority out of fear for consequences. It then became clear that we had raised our hands because we saw the Laidlaw team member as someone who had authority over us, and we abided by the request because we were unsure of what would happen if we refused.
Another interesting point made during the discussion was whether leaders must create changes for the group. One Laidlaw scholar brought up a concerning implication of believing the idea that a good leader must alter the status quo in order to appear that they have made an impact on the organization they lead. It doesn’t take much to think of examples of where this is the case – during each political election, whether in the UK, Canada, or the United States, and regardless of the political party they represent, the people running make lofty promises of “reform”- educational reform, political reform, economical reform – it’s almost as though we expect these changes whenever there is a change in leadership… but why? Why must a leader, or an individual running to be a leader, change the status quo in order to be seen as successful? It’s rare, if not impossible, to see examples of leaders who promise nothing will be changed when they are elected. Going back to the idea of leaders having the ability to influence the actions of the group they lead, does this “change-promising” pattern of leadership exist because people feel new leadership is necessary to fix the problems that the previous leader refuses to address?
The most surprising thing I learned from this summer was the real-life application of self-leadership. I still remember being asked to define self-leadership in my Laidlaw interview and feeling underprepared to answer this question. At the time, I had only heard the term “self-leadership” used a couple of times, but I couldn’t recall a time when it was explained to me in way that made sense. Self-leadership seemed like a concept that was different from the more “public” forms of leadership I saw. During my interview, after a few seconds of semi-panic and deep thought, I decided to define self-leadership as the act of finding motivation to work harder and improve, in the absence of external pressures and despite facing setbacks.
My experience working in the lab this past summer really highlighted to me the relevance of self-leadership, particularly as the majority of my work was solitary. I had regular meetings with my supervisor and I also worked alongside a PhD candidate in the same lab, but for the most part, I was responsible for carrying out my own experiments as well as gathering and analyzing my own data. In essence, I was responsible for my own progress and I could control how much I wanted to work. This amount of freedom was something I had not experienced before and I discovered that I needed to find motivation within myself.
Over the course of my five weeks of research this summer, I faced a few challenges along the way that tested my self-leadership. One particular challenge I encountered was the repetitive and time-consuming nature of data analysis. After taking over two thousand pictures of my cells under an immunofluorescent microscope, I needed to count the ratio of parasite to host cells under different treatment conditions. Since there is no reliable computer software which can distinguish individual parasite nuclei, the counts were all done manually. Going through each picture was tedious and, quite frankly, there were moments when I wanted to give up or decrease the quality of my work. This experience taught me self-leadership as I was required to find motivation to keep working even as I was getting bored and frustrated with the monotony of the work. No one was standing over my shoulder watching as I counted the parasites and in the absence of an external factor, I had to use self-leadership.
I feel a valuable resource that was made available to me as a Laidlaw scholar was the leadership lunches. A particularly memorable moment occurred during a leadership lunch with guest speaker Dr Sandra Romenska. Her story about arriving in the UK to study at university as a foreign student, navigating an unfamiliar city, language, and culture reminded me of my own experience as an international student. Moreover, and perhaps most pertinent to me though, Dr Romenska talked about her highly varied education and how she has been able to utilize many of the knowledge and skills she acquired, even if they seemed to have little relevance at the time. She joked about how she has “spun” her degree to fit with a huge array of job applications and reminded us to take every opportunity that is offered to us, even if it seems that these will cause us to stray from our thought-to-be pre-determined path. According to Dr Romenska, everything we learn will come in handy one day; everything we do is for a reason and the small road trips that we take along the way will be somehow useful in the future. I can recall many times in school or during lecture where I wonder, “when will I ever use this?”, but after what she said, I have grown to be more open to accepting what I learn without worrying about when, where, and how I will use my knowledge.
I would like to use my time as a Laidlaw scholar to further my understanding of the different forms of leadership that exist and learn more about the style of leadership I may want to adopt. First, I feel that through being part of the Laidlaw programme, I have already been exposed to forms of leadership that may be less common and less public. Second, I am interested in learning more about the leadership styles that are the most effective in different circumstances and how to determine which leadership style is best suited to our one’s personality or way of working. I hope to achieve these by taking advantage of the opportunities offered to me by the Laidlaw program, attending as many networking and leadership lunch sessions as I can, and by participating in events where I can observe other leaders in action.