July 2012

Complementary skills: leadership and management

Managing an academic lab or an industry team of scientists requires good leadership and management skills, but these skills are rarely taught or discussed directly in training programs. So how can graduate students and postdocs cultivate leadership and management skills while in training? In this column, I will define these terms and share with you some tips and resources to help develop leadership and management skills.

Leadership vs. management 

Leadership and management skills go hand in hand, but there are differences.

In Kristina Ricketts’ article “Leadership vs. Management,” she defines leadership as a process whereby someone influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal, whereas management means to exercise executive, administrative and supervisory direction of a group or organization. A leader has a vision and knows how to inspire, motivate and energize people. A leader is creative, confident and charismatic. In contrast, a manager’s role is to establish agendas, rules and procedures and to organize, plan and budget to make sure tasks are accomplished in a timely manner. According to Peter G. Northouse, a communication and leadership expert, leadership produces change and movement, and management produces order and consistency.

For more information on the competencies associated with each of these terms, I highly recommend Northouse’s books “Leadership: Concepts and Practice” and “Leadership: Theory and Practice.” Ricketts also provides a list of characteristics and behaviors associated with effective leaders and managers.

People management  

Whether you plan to lead and manage an academic research group or a team in industry or elsewhere, working with people and influencing them are responsibilities that you must take seriously. Knowing how to manage people effectively is an important skill, and one that can easily be acquired if you are willing to learn.

Be professional. This is especially important to keep in mind when you are new to a leadership position (for example, if you are an assistant professor who is just starting his or her own lab). However, even the most experienced individuals can behave unprofessionally and exercise poor judgment when under stress. I will discuss this issue further in a future column on professionalism, but I recommend that you start with the following articles: “Managing Knowledge Workers” and “Managing Knowledge Workers: Rules for Absolute Beginners.”

Project management 

As graduate students or postdocs in science, most of you already have some project-management experience: You have designed your own experiments, allocated resources, such as research tools and reagents, and planned a timeline for completing experiments or a project.

In the Science Careers Magazine article “Project Management for Scientists,” authors Stanley E. Portny and Jim Austin emphasize, “You need to manage your laboratory the same way you do your science: boldly but methodically, with the right balance of purposefulness and opportunism.” For more on this topic, read “Project Management in an Uncertain Environment.”

Practical advice 

Here are some creative ways to develop and improve your leadership and management skills:

  1. 1. Join graduate-student or postdoctoral associations at your institution or become a member of professional societies and assume leadership positions in committees.
  2. 2. If you are a postdoc or a senior graduate student, look into mentoring new graduate or undergraduate students. 
  3. 3. Seek opportunities to teach an undergraduate- or graduate-level course by either volunteering or taking on a part-time lecturer position.
  4. 4. Ask your mentor or supervisor if you can help order supplies and reagents for your lab to get a better sense of what it takes to manage a lab budget.
  5. 5. Write grants or study your mentor’s grants to see how funds and resources are allocated. This will help you to be in charge of the vision and direction of your own research project.
  6. 6. Register for professional-development certificate programs. Many academic institutions offer either online or in-class certificate programs on leadership and management through their business schools.



 References and additional resources 


In my previous column, I discussed the importance of developing strong oral and written communication skills. Indeed, one of the fundamental skills of good leadership and management is the ability to communicate effectively.


Aruni S. Arachchige Don Aruni S. Arachchige Don (singamap@umdnj.edu) holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Iowa. She recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship and is now a technology transfer fellow at the Office of Technology Transfer & Business Development at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

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