Thoughts on leadership from John Hennessey

Photo by dunechaser on Flickr

Photo by dunechaser on Flickr

John L. Hennessey is the current President of Stanford University and a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Prior to becoming President of the University, he served as the Chair of the Department of Computer Science, Dean of the School of Engineering, and Provost of the University after Condoleeza Rice. As part of a leadership development program geared towards graduate students, Hennessey participated in an interview-style seminar. His love for academic teaching was evident, and he reminisced fondly of his younger days, saying, “being a graduate student and a faculty member – they were some of the happiest times of my life.” These are some of the more interesting thoughts I took away from the interview.

What will graduate education look like in 25 years?

Hennessey believes we must train adults to be adept at living in the 21st century. This means reflecting the fact that there will be no fixed careers – people will shift roles often, which requires different skill sets. He foresees the emergence of new fields of study, much like the field of bioengineering today. The demand for Ph.D.-level graduates in non-academic roles – policy, industry, non-profit, etc – will rise, and the more educated people there are, the better the world will be.

It’s OK to say ‘No’

One thing Hennessey wishes he’d known as a graduate student is that you should never participate in something unless you’re able and willing to do it 100%. This doesn’t just go for students, either – professors would do well not to take on more students than they can handle. Better to do a really good job on a few things, whether it be research projects or mentoring students, than to do a poor job on a lot of things, especially mentoring students.

Photo by pedrosimoes7 on Flickr

Photo by pedrosimoes7 on Flickr

Leadership is NOT management!

A great leader is someone with vision who is able to make difficult decisions. When you’re younger or more junior, leadership often consists of simply forming groups and coming to any outcome; as you go higher up, the outcomes really start to matter, making the decisions more difficult. A great leader drives towards a consensus on difficult problems in the right way. Reminding people of the bigger picture helps to create an environment of shared responsibility.

OK, leadership does require some management

Those in academic labs are probably familiar with the brilliant scientist who is a terrible manager. He or she has great ideas and can really inspire people, but the lab is an administrative mess and being a student there is confusing and stressful. Bottom line? Management is also important. Academics are rarely coached in effective management so in the absence of formal training it’s essential that researchers start out small and build up slowly to practice and expand their managerial skills. It’s a trial by fire, but you can learn a bit by taking courses and following the example of others. In the end, though, the best education is actually doing it.

Some suggestions for tackling day to day personnel and task management:

  • Delegate and empower
  • Prioritize – recognize what is actually important to get done
  • Find ways to add value to otherwise mundane tasks

And finally some general thoughts to keep in mind as you develop your leadership skills:

Go outside your comfort zone, and be willing to fail.

Making tough decisions means you can’t please everybody.

Don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy – find a way to make things work.

Learn from your peers and surround yourself with people who know a little bit more than you do.

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