What Leaders Could Learn from Ph.D. Students

What Leaders Could Learn from Ph.D. Students

One of the first challenges of being a Ph.D. student in Industrial-Organizational Psychology is rethinking how you think. In a world that permits glossing over the details for the sake of a one sentence tweet and full of search engines that think for us, being informed is counterculture.  With doctoral students raised in this world, this is no easy task. At the end of their journey with us, we will change their name and put a Dr. in front of it. By default, they will become leaders because of the referent power that will come with their newly minted brand. Like any leader of influence, they will be responsible for a different level of thinking. Newly minted Ph.D.s will be responsible for understanding the complexity of the facts, thinking critically and openly, and of being thoughtful and discerning in any decision or statement they make. Whether you are a Ph.D. student or a leader in some other context, analysis, thoughtfulness, discernment, and even research will play critical roles in distinguishing you as either a bully, a blank, or a leader. A bully says, “These are the facts”, a blank doesn’t say much of any consequence. A leader says, “What do we know about this, and what are my convictions based on that evidence?”

The greatest challenge for our first year Ph.D. students is engaging in what I describe as Evidence-Based Thinking. One of the first questions I ask them when they arrive is whether leaders are born or made. I let them write down their answer and even say them out loud. Then I tell them this. “That is your opinion, and I don’t care about your opinion, yet.” I will care, but not yet. Decades of research exist on the question of whether leaders are born or made, and until you have been to the research and defined your your terms, your opinion is still your opinion. I’m not suggesting that opinions and convictions don’t matter. Convictions based on opinions drive the bus our world is riding on. It is evidence-based thoughtfulness that will transform our world for the better.  Being thoughtful and evidence-based will make you a bit boring when certain questions are raised at the dinner table of which you know the evidence, but that shouldn’t stop you from being informed.

Evidence-based thoughtfulness requires us to embrace the questions inherent in what others may see as the “facts.” The reality is that it is the questions that lead us toward a greater understanding of truth and best decisions…in itself a paradox.  That does not necessarily imply that we must agree or disagree with any person, theorist, leader or idea, but that we are willing to highlight the questions raised by their thoughts. It is not as simple as “You either agree or disagree”, but about evidence-based thoughtfulness. Evidence-based means actually looking at the evidence. Evidence includes the research, analysis, learning, and statements of others in the context within which they are learning, writing, thinking or speaking.

Following are tips I give to our Ph.D. Students to help them write more effectively and become more thoughtful leaders in the future. As a consultant and coach to leaders, I have found that the same principles apply in helping them become that next level leader they are seeking to become.

Be specific:  Good decision-making, writing, and research requires us to be clear regarding what we are actually talking about. This takes time. While we may agree in the end, it may take a few minutes to make sure we are talking about the same thing. If a student wants to do a study with me on leadership character, the first two challenges they will face are defining leadership and defining character. In business, the same principle applies. Marketing is not the same as branding, but they are certainly interconnected. I cannot tell you how many leadership teams could have saved dozens of hours if they just got clear regarding what they are talking about before they started talking.

Avoid Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a strategy for politicians and leaders looking to sway the masses, but not for thoughtful leaders looking to make informed decisions. This is counterculture because sometimes people will follow hyperbolic statements like flies to the flame, but that doesn’t make it right.

Argue Against Yourself: Consider the possibility that you are wrong. The point is not to find yourself to be wrong or convince yourself otherwise, but to truly understand the tensions inherent in any decision or evidence you see. Early on in our training we will often force Ph.D. students to take the other side. While that certainly isn’t realistic in every situation, it forces thoughtfulness and understanding that will otherwise be replaced with blind conviction. Time may or may not allow it, but the right decision will demand it.

Identify Third Options: Look for a third and currently unknown option. When we lock down our discussions or writing to one of two options, especially when the pressure is on, we oftentimes miss the better option that already exists but has yet to be discovered. Contrarians will see this as a waste of time, until they realize that the third option actually provided an easier path for them as well. As a leader, you always have to be aware that a third option is possible.

Dig Deeper: When I was in elementary school, the Encyclopedia Brittanica was the equivalent of a search engine. Many of my papers were based on the evidence that those books provided. And, that was encouraged. While digging deeper may exhaust many and seem like a waste of time, it is those many who dismiss deeper thinking who have no business leading. This one is just as true in research as it is in leadership.

Yes, Research Matters: I describe research as evidence-based story telling. Research tells the story of what we have discovered so far. Avoid the pressure to have your uninformed convictions be the only guide for your decisions. Learning toward research as evidence requires an understanding that research doesn’t always provide the only answer, but opens up understanding of the complexity of the variables we are considering and the more complete story of what we should do next.

Fight well: Establish a culture where the norm is to disagree with consideration for others. Peace mongering is just as disruptive as bullying for a leadership team. Encourage your team members to fight well. This is especially important for cultures made up of people who care about each other. Establishing your charter as a team or group that fights well lays the foundation for the assumption that we will disagree, and that’s a good thing. We will fight, and leave the meeting or discussion with our relationship intact.

Embrace Developmental Stages: The challenge for an emerging leader is different than the challenge for a seasoned leader. As you gain experience and seasoning in investing in evidence-based thinking, your convictions will by default become more informed. This is why some mature leaders or researchers have more credibility and can make stronger statements. The challenge is that some experienced leaders never move through the first stage, creating deepening convictions without the capacity to thoughtfully engage. Embrace evidence-based thoughtfulness early on and accelerate your progress toward becoming that next level leader.

– Dr. Rob McKenna

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