Survive and Thrive: Leadership

Continuing her occasional series, “survive and thrive”, Katie Hoare from Careers Network explores a key skill sought after by employers in the post-COVID-19 world.  It’s likely that you are already developing and using these highly transferable skills in your research.


When most people hear the word “leadership” they think ‘management of staff’ or ‘being the boss of an organisation’.  Whilst these positions do definitely require leadership ability, they are not the only scenarios where leadership skills are required.  You can and should be developing your leadership skills regardless of whether you are supervising others.

Photo of a lionLeadership is not one skill, your ability to lead requires a variety of skills including self-awareness, accountability and communication.  Consultancy firm McKinsey have a conceptual framework for leadership and split it into three levels; 1) leading yourself, 2) leading others, 3) system leadership.  People often move from level 1 to 2 during their career, but not everyone ends up at level 3.  System leadership goes beyond leading one organisation to transforming whole systems and often involves connected organisations addressing multi-faceted problems.

As previously alluded to, when thinking about leadership, self-leadership is often overlooked, but it is foundational and critical for effective leadership of others.  Leading others comprises of two parts, 1) helping people be the best possible version of themselves, and 2) judgement and decision making.  If you are not proficient in leading yourself you might struggle to lead others, and your ability to help them become excellent self-leaders will be diminished.  Therefore, improving your self-leadership is the most important area to focus on in early career.


Leadership is the number one desirable skill across all employer surveys.  Whilst employers aren’t necessarily looking for someone who can lead a big team straight away, they want staff who are proficient at self-leadership and can demonstrate they have the potential to lead.  According to Forbes, ‘professionals with strong skills in leadership, including how to bring out the best and inspire teams as well as encourage collaboration, will be in demand’, especially if home-working and socially distanced offices continue.

Currently in a job interview for a consultancy firm, questions around leadership and interpersonal skills count for 50%.  This illustrates the importance of honing and being able to communicate your leadership ability.  The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2019 also cites leadership as critical for business development, which is something organisations are going to be focusing on now more than ever.

Aside from what employers are seeking, being adept at self-leadership is also beneficial to you, both personally and professionally.  Improving your self-leadership won’t just help you to get the job you want, it will also assist you in performing well in that role and progressing.  “Effective self-leadership is helping you be the best possible version of yourself”, says Corinne Sawers, Associate Partner at McKinsey.


It may be a relief to hear that according to Christina Chen, CEO of Turing Talent, “leadership is learnt, not born”.  During your research degree you are already developing your leadership skills and have excellent examples to demonstrate self-leadership, such as managing a project, working independently, taking responsibility for your data and identifying and persevering with your research purpose.

If you would like to learn more about leadership skills and techniques as well as job-hunting tips, visit the PG Skills Canvas module.  This is just the beginning; according to Corinne “a leadership journey is something you will be working on your whole careers.”

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