Leadership Development - Thibaut Goldsborough

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When I first applied to the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship in October last year I had virtually no experience in leading a team and never had I practiced any leadership skills. The limited experience I did have working in a team involved teamwork for a group project at school or University. At the time, I viewed leadership as something much bigger than it actually is, it was beyond me, it was about having hundreds of thousands of followers and changing the world. Calling myself a leader or saying to myself that I had leadership skills was to reach a certain arrogance or cockiness that I wasn’t comfortable with. It wasn’t until I had completed my first DISC profile that I understood for the first time that my old stereotypical vision that leadership potential only belonged to a small percentage of the population wasn’t the best way to think about leadership. Anyone had the necessary traits to be a leader, in their own specific way. My DiSC profile revealed that I belonged to the “iD style of leadership”, which I initially read with a lot of scepticism and doubt. Since then, I’ve been told by multiple people with whom I worked with this summer that my leadership style was without the any doubt an “iD style”. Had I subconsciously adopted a new leadership style this summer during my Laidlaw project?


At the start of my Laidlaw summer project, I was wondering how I was going to fit leadership with my Laidlaw Research Project. After all, I was in no position to lead a team researchers and students to carry out a research project to answer my own self defined question. Everyone I was going to contact and work with was far more experienced than I was, most of them already had PhDs, were professors or researchers in St Andrews, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and LIPI (Indonesian institute of Science), in fact, I was the one who had a supervisor. This is when I read the quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower during one of the leadership talks: "By leadership we mean the act of getting someone to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority”. This quote fits in perfectly with the research experience at the Botany Department of the National University of Singapore. I found myself conducting a team of three scientists who were all far more advanced in their studies or careers than I was. I had the privilege of working alongside a Masters student from NUS and a PhD student from Harvard every single day of my research project. Despite being in no position of authority to compel anyone in the Botany Department to do lengthy, repetitive, and somewhat costly tasks in the lab for my own personal research project, I somehow managed to have a whole team of bright students and sometimes experienced professors dedicating a lot of their own time and equipment trying to answer the research questions that I had formulated. In some way, I somewhat benefitted not having a position of authority in the lab as my collaborators were helping me because they wanted to do it and not because they had to. This experience will undoubtedly be of great value in my future years as a researcher. 


Robbins, in 2012, stated that leadership differs from power as it “requires some degree of match between the goals of the leader and his or her followers”. This fits in with the quote from Eisenhower, and once again, the only reason that enabled me to benefit of a leadership position in Singapore was because my collaborators and I all shared a common goal which is answering novel research questions in a field that we all share a passion for. Fortunately, I was able to avoid any conflicting situations during my leadership project, but once again, this stresses the importance of sharing a common interest and goal from the very start between all the followers and the leader himself. In this way, finding a solution that benefits the ultimate purpose of the team will necessarily benefit the interests of all the team members. I will remember this very carefully as I am sure I will benefit from this leadership style in my second leadership summer and in the years to come. 


Convincing the first person to follow me and to dedicate weeks of his time to answer a question that I have formulated somehow ended up being the most important step in bringing a team together to work on my project. I was lucky enough to find my first “follower” with ease, Dr Kadeem Gilbert, a PhD graduate from the University of Harvard, who ended up giving some sense of credibility to my ideas and convictions. This first follower was important for me to find a supervisor in St Andrews and later collaborators in Singapore. Another important factor that helped my leadership was respect. Of course, treating all of the students and researchers who were willing to help me with a great deal of respect and integrity was crucial, and obtaining all the right research permits and addressing ethical considerations in advance ended up being very important for my collaborators and their institutions.


What I found out during this relatively short leadership opportunity was that different people are motivated by very different things and what actually matters as a leader is to work out what those things are and to be very careful not to assume that people are motivated by the same things as you are. This is an aspect of leadership that I have overlooked in the past and that I came to realise during my time in Singapore. Some of my collaborators were helping me with my project with the prospect of having their name on a paper while others helped out of simple curiosity and passion for the subject. This impacted the way they invested their time helping out with the project. Those who were collaborating uniquely to have a name on a paper would often ask one of their students to help out and would tend not to be very involved themselves. Those who were truly interested in the subject itself and curious to try and answer a novel question would tend to have more initiative and dedicate more time to the project. While both ended up being equally useful in the laboratory and in the field, I understood the importance of making an effort to know the reasons behind someone’s involvement in a team, which is crucial to understand one’s motivations.


After the end of my Laidlaw leadership project, I had the opportunity of leading a 3-person team, consisting of another Laidlaw scholar and a PhD student from Harvard in a 2-week expedition through unexplored rainforest in the Indonesian mountains to look for new species of plants. These were some of the most challenging weeks of my life, and I was taking responsibility for the group as I had the most experience in the rainforest. We found ourselves in difficult conditions and having to take impossible decisions. I think I owe to the Laidlaw leadership program the fact that I took my role as a leader very seriously. I made nearly all the decisions, I was leading the way through a rainforest that no one had ever ventured through previously, set up the hammocks, prepared food for the other members and spent a lot of time assisting my fellow teammates through an expedition that turned out to be very successful. A couple months later, back in St Andrews, I’ve given a talk in front of dozens of people about my Indonesian Expeditions and have been asked by some whether they could join me in my future treks.


Since I’ve become a Laidlaw scholar, I’ve taken leadership positions on multiple committees of St Andrews Societies: the French Society, the St Andrews Biotech Society and the St Andrews Wilderness and Expedition Medicine Society. Today, I can only reflect positively on how my leadership skills have evolved in the past 8 months, from never having practiced any sort of leadership before arriving in St Andrews to having spent nearly the entire summer applying the skills that I’ve learnt from the Laidlaw Programme in real-world environments. I genuinely believe that the leadership development courses offered by the Laidlaw Scholars Programme including the Leadership Weekend, lunches and the Action Learning Sets is in large part responsible for my leadership development. This programme has also very importantly enabled me to meet and become friends with so many other Laidlaw scholars who share the same overall leadership interests as I do, and to learn from their own leadership development as well.


I’m now in a position to reflect on how I which to evolve as a leader and what I’m aiming to achieve as a Laidlaw Scholar. My ultimate expectations from my Laidlaw scholarship is to come out of the programme with a widened network of contacts supporting me and to arrive in the professional world in a better position to lead. As of today, I wish to stay in the academic part of science in the future years of my career. I’m not expecting to start my own business, start-up or to lead any political movement. By becoming a better academic leader for the years to come, I mean becoming an integral part of a wide network of other academics in a field that I am passionate about, and inspire other researchers to join me in my work not because they are compelled to, but because they are truly interested in doing so. As opposed to big companies which have a well-defined hierarchy which put a number of people in a position of power or authority and can compel other members of the team to do certain tasks, I believe academic leadership is the opposite, it focuses on collaborations and mutual respect, which is the part of leadership that I am most interested in.


                  In conclusion, the Laidlaw Scholars Leadership Programme has been a unique opportunity for me to learn about unfamiliar leadership skills within a tight and passionate group of Laidlaw Scholars. Since I’ve joined the programme, I’ve had the opportunity to practice teamwork in different settings including research labs and fieldwork in Singapore, different societies in St Andrews and even in the Indonesian rainforest. These opportunities have enabled me to become part of a wider network of researchers and students and will hopefully enable me to become a better academic leader during my second leadership summer, where I will hopefully continue to widen the group of researchers and students helping me answer the research question that I defined. I wish to thank the Laidlaw Scholars Programme for the unparalleled opportunities that the programme has opened to me.