Laidlaw Scholarship Leadership Essay (2019).
Prior to becoming a Laidlaw scholar, I would never have considered myself to be a natural leader. Throughout my life, I have had few roles of real responsibility and have always thought of myself as more of a follower than a leader, possibly due to a lack of confidence in my own abilities. However, over the course of the last 6 months, this perception of myself has changed drastically thanks to the leadership training programme which I have undertaken as a 2019 Laidlaw Scholar. This essay will explore and explain the myriad ways that I have developed as a leader over the course of my time as a Laidlaw Scholar: I will be examining how my approach to leadership and team work has changed over the course of this project thanks to the leadership training the scholars have received; I will consider how this has impacted my life so far, and will also discuss how I hope to use these newly-gained skills in the near future.
When I first applied for the Laidlaw scholarship, I certainly felt a degree of trepidation. I was incredibly excited at the prospect of undertaking 10 weeks of research into my chosen project (‘The Sonic Body: Embodiment, Gender, Technology’), but I felt nervous at the prospect of the leadership aspect. As far as I was concerned, leadership was not something I was (or ever could be) well suited to, owing to the fact that I can sometimes struggle with confrontation, and rarely have enough self-belief to put forwards my own ideas. Consequently, I believed that I was an unlikely candidate for a Laidlaw scholar, and imagined that many of the other applicants would be far better qualified and with radically different leadership approaches that focused more on confrontation, hostility and a clear sense of hierarchy. Therefore, I was convinced that I would stand out as a weaker candidate amongst this group of dominant and confident students. Despite this fear holding me back, I knew that the Laidlaw Scholarship would be a hugely valuable and enriching experience were I to be lucky enough to obtain a place. As someone seeking to work in a hugely competitive industry in the future (the film industry), the opportunity to receive world-class leadership training was one which I could not pass up on, and I was fully aware that the skills that I would learn in these classes could help me enormously in future employment situation. I was extremely pleased when I obtained my place in the 2019 Laidlaw cohort, and was excited to begin the programme, and curious to see how I would develop.
The first main Laidlaw activity was a residential trip to a beautiful castle called Hospitalfields. Here, the scholars were divided into groups and engaged in various leadership training activities. One skill which we developed through these exercises was our time management and ability to work in a pressurised situation. This was achieved through the creation of several short presentations covering a variety of subjects, which we had to devise in a very short period of time. In our groups, we each had to perform certain roles, honing our teamwork capabilities and coalition building, and were tested on our ability to work to a brief in in as efficient and effective a way possible. In presenting our findings, we also practised our public speaking and communications skills, and found ourselves feeling increasingly less self-conscious and more able to express ourselves clearly with every passing task. In these presentations, I also learned that being a good leader does not necessarily mean that you have to take yourself entirely seriously: one team created an informative and inventive presentation which used the form of a play set in outer space as a way to communicate their ideas to the audience. I thought that this creativity was impressive and realised that the team were showing excellent leadership spirit (in creating an unusual product and presenting it to a viewership) despite their amusing premise.
Similarly, whilst staying at Hospitalfields we examined case studies of projects which had succeeded or failed based on good or poor leadership, and discussed how we would define the concept of ‘good leadership’. This was an intriguing activity, as it foregrounded the ambiguous nature of the term as everyone had a different idea of what was important in a leader. Consequently, we understood from this process that leadership could indeed take many forms and was not limited to the stereotype I had previously imagined.
The Scholars and I learned more about this when we were taught about our own personal leadership styles. I found this extremely interesting, as this contradicted my previously held impression that the form of leadership which was most widely held as ‘best’ or most effective’ was an extremely aggressive, almost dictatorial style. Instead, I learned to appreciate there are many different styles of leadership, each of which are of equal value. This process was achieved through our studying of a DiSC profile report which was created for each Laidlaw Scholar individually. Prior to going to Hospitalfields, each of the students had completed an online questionnaire where we had responded to statements about leadership situations, and from this information, we had all been sorted into leadership categories identified by the acronym DiSC. These letters stand for Dominant, Influencer, Supportive, and Conscientious – four different leadership styles. Through this experience, I learned about the aspects of my personality which characterise my leadership style. I was identified as an Si (meaning that my leadership style is a blend between both Supportive and Influencer), and the report explained that my leadership style is defined by a tendency to enjoy working in a collaborative and friendly environment, creating a culture of empathy, and generating enthusiasm. The DiSC report came complete with a diagram which featured shading in the C region. This demonstrated that whilst I was most strongly inclined directly between S and i, I also have the capacity to demonstrate more C-inclined tendencies such as studiousness and a high quality threshold. I found this information hugely interesting, as I related very strongly to the characteristics described, and to a certain extent felt vindicated: perhaps I was worthy of being a Laidlaw scholar after all, despite having a more relaxed and cooperation attitude to being a leader. The DiSC reports that we were provided with also outlined how I could better interact with leaders who would be categorised differently to me, and again, I found this to be valuable information. Later in the day, when we were working in our teams, I used this information to get on better with my colleagues, as I could understand their attitudes and approaches to the project more easily and was able to work more harmoniously with them as a result.
Another exercise which benefitted my research skills was when we were encouraged to disclose to the person sat next to us one of our limiting beliefs. I discussed how I often experienced a sense of not being good enough with my partner, and they in turn responded with a comment about how they felt incompetent. I thought that this was an extremely interesting activity, as it allowed me to see that all of the other members of the Laidlaw groups experienced insecurity as well as me, further proving that my feelings of inadequacy were no barrier to my ability to function as an effective leader.
Once we had left Hospitalfields, I felt that I had learned an enormous amount of information about leadership and my perception of my own abilities was radically changed. I no longer felt like an outsider or an intruder, as I had learned to appreciate that my ‘different’ approach to leading was no less valid and effective than a more stereotypical approach. I also felt more confident in my abilities to tackle the upcoming research period over the summer and had more self-belief in my ability to thrive in challenging environments – a skill which I knew would be invaluable going into honours.
Once the summer term ended in June, I began my Laidlaw research project. Alongside the research which I was undertaking, the Scholars also received fortnightly Leadership lunches with the St Andrews Laidlaw team, where we gained more insight into the qualities required for leadership and were taught important skills for the workplace. On weeks when we did not have one of these lectures, the time slot which would have been allocated to this was instead filled with an ALS meeting (Action Learning Set). The purpose of these ALS meetings was to allow students who were experiencing problems with their research to discuss it with the rest of the group and gain insight from their colleagues regarding how to solve their problems. These gatherings involved four or five students, each of whom would take on a role, and despite the ALS not necessarily being an obvious way to learn about being a leader, there were definitely leadership lessons which I learned through these groups. Before every meeting, we would coordinate within our groups the roles that we would each perform. One person would serve as the ‘facilitator’ of the group; this role involved them ensuring that the structure of the meeting adheres to the guidelines laid down by the Laidlaw team, whilst also ensuring that none of the sections overrun. This role tested the participant’s ability to manage their time effectively and remain organised. Similarly, two of the Laidlaw scholars from the group would serve as ‘presenters’. They would present to the other members a problem which they had experienced with their research, practicing their capacity to explain and present information clearly and concisely. Another role present within this set-up is the ‘reporter’. This position had the responsibility of noting all of the actions which occurred throughout the meeting, ranging from ensuring that everyone consented to the confidentiality rules of the gathering to detailing the proposed solutions offered to the presenters. Again, this role placed an emphasis on the student in question being able to organise information in a clear and concise manner. For my first ALS meeting, I took the role of the presenter, and discussed with my group some troubles that had come up in my research. However, when our team met for the second time, I took the part of the reporter and wrote up a record of our activities. Through both of these roles I honed and exercised leadership skills, including concision and clarity when talking to a group or writing a paper, organisation, and time management, and certainly felt that I was benefitting from the experience.
To conclude, it is clear from this essay that my leadership skillset has been transformed by the experience of being a Laidlaw scholar. I have learned that there are multiple ‘correct’ leadership styles, all of which are equally valid; I have identified that the qualities desired in a good leader can vary from person to person; and have taken part in a wide range of activities which have helped me to develop and improve my leadership abilities. I now feel far more confident in my capacity to lead a group and feel better prepared to enter honours next year, and the workplace in in the further future.