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Good Soft Skills for STEM Majors: Leadership

Soft skills are the kinds of people skills, personality traits, and moxie that’s hard to grade a person on but essential to professional success. One such skill is leadership. And no, that’s not only for the executives and managers at your company. It’s for everyone on the team, and anyone who might experience a career change or two throughout their lives.

[G]reat leaders don’t become great leaders by commanding others. They do so by influencing others to aspire towards their own goals. By focusing on cultivating ‘a culture of leadership’, you will find yourself leading even when you least expect to. Carissa Gay, Courageous Leaders Coaching

If that’s the case, anyone on the team has leadership capability. As a team member, you are someone with influence – big or small – on the culture around you. Leadership, in this sense, is a mindset. It includes both personal stewardship of our thoughts, attitudes, and time management, and relational stewardship of our words and responses to others.

School can be a place where we individually seek out good grades for ourselves. On the job, there tends to be a lot more collaborative effort. That’s good, on one hand, since the projects at a STEM industry tend to be big ones that no one wants to tackle alone. On the other hand, it can end up being a lot like herding cats. If you can juggle multiple priorities at once, project management is a skill you’re acing. That’s a great tool to add to your personal stewardship checklist. And collaborating with others effectively? There’s the relational aspect of leadership again.

Managing people often means a lot of delegating. That means people will be identifying and amplifying the skills of others (their direct reports) to get the work done most effectively. It also means that those entrusted with such tasks are given a lot of trust to get the job done, and self-initiative is assumed. Self-initiative is a personal aspect of leadership, and identifying the strengths and skills of others is a relational one.

Every team needs leaders ready to think like this – taking personal initiative and being supportive of others. But it’s not necessarily being taught in college, at least according to one Organizational Leadership major:

I’ve heard from managers and nonprofit leaders that their organizations suffer from a leadership vacuum. . . Leadership in its simplest form is beneficial, proactive influence. Even if you’re an entry-level employee at a coffee shop, movie theater, or fast casual restaurant [or a lab bench], you can take the initiative and show leadership. In doing so, you’ll add value to the organizations and the lives around you. Elah Pritchard, Pearson Accelerated Pathways (emphasis added)

And yes, biotech companies are also places where leadership is needed! We certainly can learn leadership and management during our STEM degrees. But such skills are typically acquired as a side-effect, and not as a result of active training. That means we need to be proactive about developing this kind of soft skill set. As career coach Carissa Gay writes, “Every person in the organization is a leader creating change. Influence is happening in each moment, and the first person you influence is yourself”.

A final benefit of learning good leadership skills: it helps us recognize poor leadership when we see it. I’ve heard from plenty of grad students who struggle with self-doubt and stress, and do not recognize that what they’re seeing as inadequacy in themselves is probably just bad management on the PI’s part. I don’t want to point fingers at others, but I also don’t want my colleagues overworking themselves because of some mistaken sense of personal failure.

Leadership is important. In managing our own time, strengths, and weaknesses well, in contributing to our teams, and in eventually actively managing others. It can start by managing our own time, strengths, and weaknesses well, contributing to our teams, encouraging our teammates, and eventually, actively managing others.

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