Leadership Training in Academia

April 14, 2017

By Charles E. Leiserson

A professor is working with a new PhD student on a difficult research problem. One night, the professor solves the problem. The next day, he excitedly tells the student the solution. “Now, all we have to do is write it up, and you’ll have your first paper!” the professor exclaims. Three months later, the student drops out. The professor wonders why.

Leadership is tricky. Often, it’s not until after the fact that we realize the impact of our actions on those we lead. Many of us in the universities develop our leadership skills over time by trial and error. Ironically, we educate our students in technical topics that couldn’t possibly be learned by trial and error alone. But when it comes to learning about leadership, how many of us take the trial-and-error route without ever taking steps to improve our leadership skills through education?

Businesses recognize the educational gap faced by individuals who assume leadership positions. According to Bersin & Associates, a human-resources research firm, corporate spending on management and leadership training exceeds $14 billion per year. MIT’s own Sloan School of Management offers comprehensive courses on leadership skills, but the vast majority of MIT faculty have not experienced even one day of leadership education. 
That was my situation in 1999.

I had been on the MIT faculty for 18 years, and I thought I knew something about leadership. After all, I had tenure! I had supervised about 20 PhDs and over 30 Master’s and Bachelor’s students. But there was so much I did not know, and I did not even know that I did not know. I had to leave MIT to be humbled, and then I was ready to learn.

A Stint at Akamai

In 1999 I began a two-year leave of absence from MIT to serve as Director of System Architecture at Akamai Technologies, then a nascent MIT spin-off, now a Fortune 1000 company located here in Cambridge. As we ramped up, I hired roughly 70 of the 100 software developers that made up Akamai’s engineering staff. Many of them were people I knew directly or indirectly through university contacts. Former professors and students took on corporate roles and responsibilities, and some, like myself, who had never before been tasked with management in the corporate world, took on leadership positions.

Akamai’s engineering team included many brilliant people whose entire career up to that point had been spent in academia. Some of my own former PhD students left good jobs in academia to join the team. Quite a few people on the team were, or are now, faculty at MIT and other top-ranked universities.

But guess what? We sucked! Despite our immense talent, we were completely dysfunctional, and the other managers and I were at our wits’ end on how to cope. People became angry, arrogant, jealous, spiteful, and vindictive, to name just a few emotions. As time went on, things got worse. Many on the team expressed disappointment that they had left the comfortable confines of university life.

Fortunately, our VP of Human Resources at the time recognized the problem and brought in Chuck McVinney, a talented management consultant with expertise in teamwork and leadership training. Chuck began by running a couple of offsite workshops for the engineering leaders. We became educated in such topics as situational leadership, dealing with diversity and conflict, providing effective feedback, fostering creativity, and how to build a motivated team that leverages individual talents. Remarkably, after only two workshops, things at Akamai completely turned around. The workshop content wasn’t that hard, but if you didn’t know it, you could easily be confounded by the way human nature plays into everyday technical work. The academically trained leaders simply had never been exposed to this kind of education before.

Back at MIT

When I returned to the Institute, I realized that my MIT colleagues also coped with problems similar to those that the engineers at Akamai had faced. We were all constantly dealing with a host of “people” issues involving our students and colleagues. Although a professor is a leadership position, virtually no one at MIT in those days had any leadership training. Although not as dysfunctional as what I initially experienced at Akamai, it seemed to me that many MIT research and teaching teams were operating far below their full potential.

Determined to make a difference (I guess I had learned some leadership skills), I sat down with Chuck to adapt his materials and to develop new materials specifically for MIT clientele. Chuck and I offered our first leadership workshop in 2002 to a group of 12 MIT computer scientists. Over the next few years, we refined our materials and broadened participation to include the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the School of Engineering, and the School of Science.

On the Road

In 2005, Chuck and I started offering our leadership workshop to professors outside MIT, and over the years have provided this education – through customized offerings – to Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, and Purdue, among other places, as well as abroad in India and Singapore. Over 95% of the faculty who have participated in a workshop have rated it A or A+.

When a potential client asks about the benefits of these workshops, I point to three specific outcomes:

  • Saving time. Anticipating and avoiding workplace conflicts allows technical academic teams (and their leaders) to spend more time on the work that truly matters to them.
  • Strengthening teams. Leveraging the diversity in the way people think allows a leader to form more creative and productive teams.
  • Fostering empathy. By understanding how learning curves affect emotions, a leader can better foster and maintain student motivation.

Know Thyself

But probably the main outcome of our workshops is that academic leaders learn about themselves and how to more productively shape the future by using human-centered leadership skills to leverage technical work. It’s easy to put the blinders on and simply do things that your peers will applaud – or complain when your work is misunderstood. But by understanding your own ways of thinking and becoming educated in teamwork and leadership, you can lead others towards a compelling vision of a better world. By learning how your own leadership style affects others, your technical work can have the widest-possible impact, and you can guide it in a direction that makes it relevant and meaningful to society.

Our workshops also provide a “clearing” for participants to practice and reflect on the skills of human-centered leadership in a safe environment. Participants learn as much from each other as from Chuck and me. Our workshops involve interactive activities, self-assessment instruments, and group discussions. As one participant said, “Two days well spent!” (For information about a two-day workshop this summer, see: shortprograms.mit.edu/lsf. )

There’s a good reason why businesses today are spending billions of dollars per year to educate their employees in leadership and management training. Universities would run much more effectively if we were to follow their lead. By investing just a fraction of what industry spends, we could vastly improve the leadership skills of our professors.