Reflection on My Laidlaw Journey

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If I had been asked to reflect on leadership and how I, in particular, have evolved in my skills as a leader, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the prospect of having to write a 2000 word essay on something seemingly unimportant. After two years in this programme, however, I now understand the importance of looking back and reviewing your progress and growth. When I first applied for the Laidlaw programme, I thought I knew what leadership was. My confidence in my abilities to be a good leader was high and I wasn’t sure how beneficial the leadership aspect was really going to be for me. Leadership, at that time, meant someone who was assertive, knew all the right answers, and told people what to do, guiding them to the end goal. Through all the leadership events, and the annual conference, and the many guest talks that we have had, I have learned how leadership is about so much more than what I initially thought. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for strong leadership in our communities is even more clear. Over the course of my second summer of research, I have seen how various different individuals and groups have reacted and who has stepped up to ensure that we continue to thrive as a society, and who let us succumb to this pandemic. My two years in the Laidlaw programme have truly inspired and motivated me, even more than I was before, to become the best version of myself possible and I have learned so much which has equipped me to become a better leader, whether that be at my workplace or elsewhere. As I approach the end of my journey with the Laidlaw foundation, I look to the future with hope and confidence that I can continue building on the foundations that were laid with this programme.

The first real leadership focused event as part of the Laidlaw programme that I attended was the leadership weekend and this is where my leadership journey began. We were all given our DISC profiles, based on questions we had answered previously as part of our induction and this was where I had the first of many revelations. I always thought of myself as someone who was analytical and systematic, qualities that belong to someone falling in the “conscientiousness (C)” category, but it turns out I fit more in the “steadiness (S)” category. At first, I was upset because apparently my entire perception of myself was wrong, and I suppose a part of me always wanted to be part of the “C” category. Then I got started reading the profile that was written about people with “S” style personalities and I realised how true many the statements were. This instance of having to really face myself was so important as it forced me to get rid of any preconceived notions, I may have had about myself and to really reflect on who I was. I realised that I had held myself up to this standard of being based on a superficial idea that was planted in my mind about who I was. What this DISC profile gave me was a chance to really introspect and understand my strengths and weakness, my stressors and motivators, my priorities, and my fears. As we went through the activities of that weekend, I constantly had that in my mind and tried to see how I could act in a way to maximise the utility of my skills and this behaviour continued long after the weekend was over. By the time the next major leadership event occurred (the first leadership day), I felt confident that I knew who I was and what I was good at, as well as what I needed to work on. Or so I thought.

That leadership day, we went through a series of tasks in small groups under observation. I was feeling ill on that day but I still enjoyed the tasks. One part of me just wanted it to be over so I could go home and rest, but the other half wanted me to push through it and do well in the tasks as a sort of challenge to myself to show that I could perform well regardless of the circumstances. Whether it was my health which influenced my cognizance of my performance or if I was still naïve about my true limitations, the feedback that I gave myself for that day was largely in contrast to what was given by those observing us. In that feedback session, I learned more about leadership and what it meant to be a leader. I learned that it was possible to be a good leader, even when I had no particular skillset suited for the task at hand. This was a problem I faced that day where there were instances when the task required some creative thinking and artistic skills and I felt useless since I do not consider myself particularly talented in either areas. As a result, I took a backseat and did not contribute much, or I had a direct negative impact in the productiveness of the entire group. The idea that a leader could not have a skillset for a particular task but could still lead didn’t make sense to me at the time. But I learned how it was equally as important to make sure that those who were most useful to the task should be highlighted and encouraged, and that I should just make sure that everyone stays motivated and productive to maximize output of the group as a whole. The feedback session was a harsh reality check for me that I don’t have all the answers and that I am not as good as I think I am. I had a choice, I could either take the criticism and sulk about how unfair it all was and give up; or I could work on those areas, keep trying to improve on my weaknesses and continue my education into leadership. If I had decided to quit, then this entire scholarship would have been wasted on me and I would have to live with the fact that I would not live up to my potential and possible not even achieve all the goals and aspirations I had set for myself. That was something I could not stomach and so I decided to continue learning, read more books, listen and talk to more people, and hopefully continue growing. When the pandemic hit, I had more time on my hand and I decided to make the most of it.

COVID-19 has been a crazy and confusing time for the world with lots of uncertainty for everyone. It is in this time that the true leaders of the world step up and show what they are capable of. With the Laidlaw foundation, I have first hand experience of how they quickly adapted to ensure that all the scholars would still be able to make the most of their summer of research while keeping them as safe as possible. This show of leadership by the foundation showed me that whatever we were being taught, was easily translatable to real life and just how effective it could be. If anything, I found this summer to be more exciting than the previous summer just because of the wide range of talks that were delivered every week. Although I was not able to attend all of the sessions, the ones I did were fascinating and truly inspirational. What made the talks more interesting was that we were able to get into contact with so many people from around the world doing widely different but equally important jobs and we got to hear how they were adapting to the rapidly evolving world around us, especially during this pandemic. As I heard all these people talk, I realised that there were so many different ways that people could have an impact in the world but all that started with strong leadership. I learned that leadership over oneself is the first step in becoming a strong leader. Without proper management over myself, there was no way I could lead other people. Following this revelation, I decided to devote my time to improving on myself. I have since gotten into regular meditation, reading, and continuously challenging myself in some way, big or smaller. The combination of the values taught by the Laidlaw programme, the exposure provided by them to different people, and the extra time available because of the pandemic have allowed me to focus on myself to eventually become a better leader.

As my time with the Laidlaw scholars programme comes to an end, I look to the future with new direction. I am confident that after my two years in the programme, I am well equipped to continue on a path of education that will allow me to grow. The Laidlaw foundation has done an incredible job of setting up their website which is just another way that allows scholars, both current and previous, to be in touch and in contact. Although I have, admittedly, not utilised the website to its full potential, I know that when I am ready to do so, I have access to a plethora of resources and highly intelligent and equally passionate individuals at my fingertips. One of the critical feedback that I have received during my time in this programme was that I need to work on my networking skills. This is something I never thought of as important but have since come to realise how beneficial it can be, not just for me, but also for those who I talk to. I have not improved on this skill yet but I am working towards it and that is one of the amazing aspects of this programme. It forces you to confront your weaknesses and gives you an amazing support system to help you improve on that, as well as preparing you to find your own drawbacks and work on them.

These past two years have been an amazing journey for me. The people I have met, the conversations I have been a part of, and the work I have done has been challenging and fulfilling. I look back now, reflecting on my progress and I can see how different my world view is. The fact that I am reflecting on it is a sign that I have made some progress. I also realise that I have a long road ahead of me and that learning how to be a better leader is a constant journey that never ends but I am now better equipped to keep working towards it. I have learned so much through all the various events organised by the programme as well as seen the direct implication of a lot of the teachings during the COVID pandemic. All of these experiences combined have changed me, arguably for the better and I am excited to see how I continue on this trajectory even after I am officially done with my two years in the programme. I would like to end by thanking Lord Laidlaw and the University of St. Andrews for allowing me to be a part of this experience and for being an incredible support system through the entire journey.

Panth Shah

Student, University of St. Andrews