My leadership development

This essay describes the last year's development in my leadership abilities facilitated by the Laidlaw Scholarship

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When I applied to the Laidlaw Scholarship in the beginning of 2020, I was certain I would get it. I already had what I perceived to be the most important quality for achieving success: The ability to plan, often in excruciating detail. I have always been most concerned with the “how” of things rather than any other question - if something seemed beneficial, the most important thing was to figure out how to obtain it. 

When I first heard about the Laidlaw Scholarship halfway through first year, I knew I wanted a spot, and so I spent the year leading up to the application deadline meticulously planning how to achieve that. By the time the deadline came around, I had a fully fledged research project, having worked on it with my supervisor for months. Of course, I knew I had some problems with leadership as well. In terms of my self-leadership, I had a pseudo-addiction to productivity and a case of chronic perfectionism. My avoidance of and general distaste for teamwork, on the other hand, was a problem when I had to lead others. I had known about these issues for years, at least since my very first year of high school, and I was ashamed of my inability to solve them. No matter how hard I tried, the “how” simply wouldn’t come to me. In this essay I would like to explore these deficits in my leadership ability and how I have moved towards overcoming them, focusing first on my self-leadership and then on my leadership of others. 

Cognitive dissonance 

In psychology, the subject I am majoring in, cognitive dissonance refers to a state where you have two contradictory beliefs at the same time. This is an adequate description of how I felt about my problems with self-leadership at the beginning of the Laidlaw Scholarship. I had heard throughout most of my childhood that perfectionism was bad and that it was important to relax. However, my actual experiences didn’t reflect this at all. I had never been rewarded for relaxing, but I had received much approval for my work ethic. My perfectionism had often lifted my work to new heights. I desperately wanted to be the type of high achiever society seemed to promote, the one that is fun and relaxed and does all the social events and was good at selfcare. But in the real world, it was exactly my perfectionism, my long work hours, and my general tendency towards competition that had gotten me the high grades, the internships, the spot at University. I didn’t want to give any of this up. It is hard to decide on a new self-leadership direction when the one you already have is both rewarded and critiqued -  Should I loosen up or double down? 

The answer is, as it so often is, a bit of both.  

By now I have realized that the societal idea of the perfect, well-balanced high achiever is just that - an idea. In reality, it is very hard to succeed unless you work extremely hard and are willing to sacrifice other parts of your life. Meeting the other Laidlaw scholars made me realize I wasn’t alone in being extremely dedicated, hard working, and perfectionistic and that having these traits isn’t  necessarily wrong. On the other hand, I also saw that uncontrolled perfectionism and workaholism can become a problem. Talking to the other scholars and hearing some of the presentations, especially on the first leadership weekend, made me realize that my high-strung nature does give me issues other than fitting into a societal ideal. I had taken it for granted that it was necessary to look over a project for days before submitting it, assuming that unless I worked until 10pm each day, I was being lazy. 

 Intellectually, I knew that this way of thinking was unhealthy, but I had never managed to make myself care - the rewards I got from this overachieving  behaviour were too great. However, hearing one of the other Laidlaw Scholars refer to this endless checking and overworking as inefficient - that did the trick. I am not sure exactly what it says about me that the behaviour’s possible inefficiency made more of an impression than its clear unhealthiness, but it did make me reconsider. Today, I am better at regulating my schedule, taking breaks, and stopping myself from endless revisions of my work. I, for example, use the Pomodoro technique we learned on the first Leadership weekend, and set an alarm to remind myself to take a break every 25 minutes. However, I must admit that this can make me quite frustrated. When I am doing something I really enjoy, I don’t want to stop doing it just to take a break. This was particularly hard during last summer when I did a research project I was really invested in. However, I have learned to reframe this break as an act of self discipline rather than something I do to relax, which makes me feel more productive. In terms of my perfectionism, submitting something without thoroughly checking it five times is still anxiety inducing, but I do manage, and when my brain becomes irate, I remind it of what that other Laidlaw Scholar said - that unnecessary quintuple-checking is inefficient. This comment, as well as others made about the usefulness of self-care by other scholars and presenters alike, has helped me resolve my initial cognitive dissonance. I have realized that self-care and taming your perfectionism and workaholism is not in opposition to excellent academic performance, but instead can serve to increase productivity and work quality. I don’t have to prioritize either my health or my success - these are connected and I can and should prioritize both.  

Hostile attributions bias

My primary problem with leading others in the beginning of the scholarship was, as previously mentioned, my issues with teamwork. I didn’t have a lot of experience with working with other people and I didn’t have a great level of confidence in my ability to lead them. In school I had always chosen to work alone whenever possible. Furthermore, when group work was obligatory, I would either elect to do the entire project by myself if the other group members agreed to that,  or to just complete the tasks delegated to me while interacting as little as possible with others. This decision making was based partly on my tendency to become overwhelmed and self conscious in group contexts and partly on my lack of faith in other people and their willingness to help me. I have always had a hard time recognizing and interpreting the nuances of other people’s behaviour, and when in doubt it is safer to interpret an action as hostile than as encouraging. In essence, I had developed a form of hostile attribution bias - I believed the worst about the people around me and what they thought of me. As a result my perspective became one of isolation. It was easier, better and safer to just stick to myself. 

Laidlaw helped me change that perspective. University in general does not have much obligatory teamwork, at least not in my degree, but in Laidlaw I often had to work with others during different exercises. Here, I found myself struggling to gage when it was appropriate for me to contribute and when I needed to listen, and I think I might have talked over others by accident. I dealt with this by doing what I do in all situations where I have no idea what is going on - by staying mostly silent and watching what everyone else is doing. Through this I moved towards actually relaxing and enjoying myself in group contexts, something which I hadn’t had much practice in before, and I started to allow myself to relinquish control over the direction of the projects we were doing, believing that people would do what they were supposed to. It is hard to change a mindset like that, but for me this difficulty was definitely worth it. It became exciting to work with other people and hear their different perspectives. Today, I am much more of a team player than I have ever been before. I actually enjoy teamwork, and I have become more confident in myself. 

External validation

It has not escaped my notice that my leadership issues were centered around the desire for external validation. I wasn’t comfortable with group work for two reasons: I wasn’t sure others would accept me, and I didn’t trust them to do their fair share, which could possibly lower my grade. Both of these problems are centered around a need for validation from either my peers or my teachers. I also used my hunt for validation to justify my perfectionism and tendency to overwork myself. This did, after all, help me achieve feats most people find to be impressive, which made it worth it. On the surface this seems bad. There is a general idea in society that you are supposed to do things for substantive reasons, like personal fulfillment or even world peace, not for superficial approval. However, external validation is what shapes most of our life. It is my grades that decide whether I will get into the graduate programme I want to do, and it is the grades and references from that programme that determines whether I will get my dream job. But as important as external validation is, it is also fleeting - how your performance is valued tends to change depending on who is looking. Furthermore, the people who execute the new, revolutionizing ideas, rarely start out with much external validation. It seems that to be a confident and inventive leader you have to have faith in yourself. 

I think my leadership problems really stem from this lack of security I have always felt in my own performance, the constant line of questioning: Am I doing enough, and am I doing it well enough? The research summer was challenging in this regard as it was the first time I did research by myself. In the beginning, I had to stop myself from contacting my supervisor and asking for his approval on the smallest of details. But as the summer went on, I started feeling more confident in my own decisions, and this is a change that has stayed with me. I suppose this might be part of the reason why I find my perfectionism easier to manage -  I don’t doubt myself like I used to. That is not to say that I am fully confident in myself and my abilities just yet -  in fact I am having a minor crisis over the quality of this essay as I am writing this - but I am confident that I will continue to improve, and maybe this newfound self assurance will help me be a better leader for myself and for others. 

Conclusion and future directions 

The Laidlaw Scholarship has helped me improve my skills in both the areas of self leadership and in the leadership of others. Through the discussions with my fellow scholars and the programme in general, I have learned that perfectionism can be inefficient, that taking care of yourself can be worth it, that teamwork can be fun, and that I can be secure in my own decision making. These are definitely skills I will use in the future. My experience with Laidlaw has made me certain on my career path as a researcher, and I am looking into graduate programmes that will further my career in that direction. 

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for the generous stipend and for the opportunity to participate in this programme. Furthermore I would like to thank Hayley and Alex for organizing all the exciting events and for easing the transition to online work necessitated by the COVID crisis. Lastly, a thank you should go out to all my fellow scholars for the great company.

Kaja Monique Wiberg Andersen

Student, University of St Andrews