My Laidlaw Leadership Journey

After completing my Leadership in Action project and nearing the end of my time as a Laidlaw scholar, I've had a lot to reflect on about myself, my leadership abilities, and what I've learned. Among many reflections, I am floored again by how grateful I am to have been part of this programme.

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Acknowledgements

Before I start exploring how my leadership skills have developed in the last two years, I would like to take a moment to express how very grateful I am to be a Laidlaw scholar. It’s been incredible having the opportunity to learn about leadership and who I myself am as a leader, something I’ve never been able to discover before; attend workshops and sessions that changed my outlook in areas such as my career, working with and learning about people, and approaching difficult tasks; and connect with a group of wonderful, like-minded people. I got to do my own research(!) and it inspired a project I’m currently working on that might even have the chance to be published. To the Laidlaw team at the University of St Andrews, the Laidlaw Foundation, and Lord Laidlaw himself, I would like to say a huge, huge, thank you.

THE START OF MY JOURNEY

            When I first applied for the scholarship, I was in my second year at university. I had absolutely no concrete idea about what leadership means and how many applications it has; I’d never really been taught anything about leadership at all. I knew that I enjoyed having responsibility for work or projects that I was involved in, and I always found myself taking initiative whenever I could, but I knew next to nothing about what being a leader really means and the deep theory behind leadership. I was also missing the knowledge of what specific elements of leadership came naturally to me and which areas I wanted to work on.

            I got my first taste of the actual academic field of leadership during our first leadership weekend. As of writing this, that weekend is still one of my favorite memories from my time at the University of St Andrews. I wasn’t expecting to be given such an incredible opportunity to bond with my cohort, people who are like-minded (and so kind too!) and passionate about doing great things in life. It was here that we were given the results of our DISC profile and had a chance to reflect on what this revealed about us. It was fascinating to be able to learn about ourselves in this context, and I wasn’t surprised to be placed very much in the dominant sector, as I feel I am very results-oriented when working on something. I won’t let anything get in my way from achieving high-quality work in an efficient way; this has always been one of my favorite traits about myself. However, specifically this aspect of the leadership weekend helped me formulate my big, personal leadership goal – to combine my effectiveness in achieving results with a somewhat more people-focused approached, i.e. nurturing my team as well as pushing for the final outcome. This leadership goal stayed with me throughout the entirety of my time as a Laidlaw scholar. 

 

SUMMER 2021

            I’m very grateful to have had the weekly sessions with my cohort throughout the summer this year. Especially with COVID-19 and all of us being in different places, it was very comforting seeing familiar faces every Monday. The various leadership lunches really built on our existing knowledge of leadership. One of the many things I learned that stuck with me is the idea of having a feedback loop. The type of leadership that is most appropriate for a given scenario differs greatly depending on many factors such as the cultural context, environment, individuals in the team, and the nature of the task. For this reason, it can be difficult to know which DISC-sector to emphasize (and if this is sector is far away from our natural leadership style, difficult also to implement). By receiving constant feedback from the individuals I’m leading and subsequently adapting my approach to the leadership position, I can effectively reflect and identify what’s needed to reach our goal.

            In relation to leadership being a dynamic task, it’s therefore also important to constantly reflect on how I performed as a leader and what I could improve for next time. Even if there is no recent event where I was able to demonstrate leadership, it can be really valuable to reflect on people who have led me and what I liked or dislikes about their leadership capabilities. This really resonated with me because it taught me that there’s always something I can think back on or challenge myself to work on in the context of leadership, regardless of if I’m involved in such a position at the moment.

            Finally, one of the leadership lunches also touched upon the difference between leadership and management. Before the scholarship, I assumed leadership and management were synonymous; after all, both involve working with or guiding other people. But over the course of the scholarship and especially one of the lunches, I realized just how untrue this is. Leadership goes beyond “controlling” one’s followers; it’s about inspiring and motivating them, about passing along passion and enthusiasm. It involves a lot of listening and responding to people’s needs and making informed decisions. In comparison, management is more a structural role focused on creating efficiency and effectiveness, almost like a tick box exercise. Leadership also doesn’t necessarily have to involve a big team of people; self-leadership is an equally important and valid area that, particularly during COVID-19, has been tested heavily. Overall, each leadership lunch was so unique and showed me the many, many sides of leadership

            Another aspect of this year’s summer project was the biweekly ALS session. These showed me the true value of the Laidlaw Scholars community; because over the past two years, this community has been invaluable. As well as receiving general support from many motivated individuals and sharing updates from our research or leadership in actin projects, the scholars in my ALS group also gave me really great advice for challenges I was facing with my Leadership in Action project. The main problem I presented, which links to my overarching leadership goal, was that I was struggling to motivate my team mates to fulfil their share of the work within a given time frame. More generally, I sought advice for how to work with people who aren’t contributing as much during a group project.

            My group for the ALS sessions however gave me some fantastic tips that helped me sidestep this issue. For one, because this problem was presented quite early on in the project, they recommended that I try to trust my group members and their ability to complete their work. I also appreciated the suggestion to get to know my project team mates, both so that I can familiarize myself with their working style and also so that if I do remind them to please complete a given task, that this request may be received more forgivingly, which is what I was concerned about.  If after some time I do see a pattern emerging, I should speak to them openly and try setting them intermittent deadlines to bring up motivation. Finally, my group encouraged me not to be afraid of being dominant. This definitely had the biggest impact on me because I felt empowered to stand up for our project and push my team mates to keep up.

            As alluded to previously, to challenge myself and my leadership skills this summer I worked with Think Pacific to support a mental health advocacy and suicide prevention organization in Fiji, Youth Champs for Mental Health (YC4MH). The task for our team was to draft a fundraising proposal to assist YC4MH in collecting funding for a mental health advocacy event they are planning, mostly in the form of locating grants for which they are eligible. This project added to the content I learned about in the leadership lunches, giving me a much more holistic understanding of what it means to be a leader.

            What was particularly salient throughout this project was the importance of cultural context for leadership. It’s so important to learn subtle cultural cues and norms when working with or for individuals from different backgrounds. Doing so over the course of the 5-6 weeks helped me to connect with both my teammates and the president of YC4MH. Moreover, the knowledge of Fiji’s cultural context was immensely important for creating our fundraising proposal. For example, knowing the difficult relationship between mental health, the church and the role of religion in young Fijian’s lives gave us the idea to search for religious grants in order to help heal this relationship spanning mental wellbeing and faith. This idea of cultural fluency is new to me; it’s something that, after this project, I’m really grateful to be aware of. It’s incredibly important for me to learn how to always be respectful of other human beings, and adding tools to this toolkit is a priceless gift I’m taking away from this project.

            With Think Pacific, there was sauch a focus on adopting a “learning mindset”, which ties in perfectly to the point I discussed earlier with constantly reflecting and adapting our leadership performance. The project taught me that humility, open-mindedness, curiosity and respect are key ingredients to discover how to contribute (internationally) to worthwhile causes, especially abroad. It taught me to always be ready to listen and learn. I know that to constantly challenge myself to learn and grow, I need to question my own thinking and be proactive in becoming culturally aware, as this can make the difference between a well-intentioned idea that goes south and an action that truly aligns with the cause(s) I care about and respects everyone involved.

 

AFTER THE SCHOLARSHIP

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

            Following the summer, if I were to answer the question whether I think I achieved my leadership goal… yes, sort of?

            At the beginning of my Laidlaw journey, I wanted to find a balance between nurturing my team’s wellbeing and pushing towards the best possible outcome or output/focusing on achieving our goal. I was worried that my dominance as a leader was something negative. Now, looking back, while I have made significant growth in this area, I also feel like this goal has changed.

            One of the things that really inspired the change of my goal happened just a few weeks ago during my final debrief for the Think Pacific project. My supervisor and I discussed my leadership skills and I outlined how I was looking to tone down my relentless drive for results by adding more care for my team into my leadership style. However, my supervisor detected that I had begun to see my dominance as a negative trait and stopped me mid-sentence. He reminded me that my ability to achieve my goals no matter what is a really great gift – and he’s right. I think because of the society we live in, especially as a woman, I’ve become apprehensive of being so driven and determined, but my supervisor is right. I’m really grateful to myself for being able to lead people to a fantastic, high-quality outcome, regardless of any obstacles. For this reason, while I do still want to channel some of my energy into nurturing my teammates, I’ve realized that I also want to grow my confidence in my ability and unapologetically be the leader I am. I don’t want to replace my dominance with other leadership styles; I want to find the optimal way to combine them all. In this respect, although it may have shifted a little to the I/C sectors, I also believe my DISC profile still applies.

 

  

THE 3 MOST VALUABLE LESSONS LAIDLAW HAS TAUGHT ME 

  1. To go for leadership positions and constantly keep challenging myself
  2. To believe in my leadership skills and myself, and learn how to continue building them
  3. How leadership can look very different and can be present in many contexts – even ones I might not anticipate. I should look to being a leader in all areas of my life, including outside of the academic!

 

            As a Laidlaw scholar and beyond, I really want to continue pushing myself outside of my leadership comfort zone. This means seeking leadership opportunities everywhere, because there are countless small opportunities to challenge myself and be a leader. Demonstrating leadership isn’t restricted to big, long-term projects!

            I also want to continue identifying ways to support and nurture different types of individuals who may be working in my team, now also including navigating their cultural context.

Yukiko Braun

Student, Research Assistant and Content Creator, University of St Andrews