True Leadership Takes Risking Being Yourself

How do you gain leadership skills as a scientist? Although common elsewhere (particularly in the for-profit world), leadership training is almost non-existent for scientists. The Leopold Leadership Program and COMPASS trainings are notable exceptions. And unfortunately, like science communication, leadership skills are not part of graduate training (but perhaps they should be). Recently, I accepted a generous invitation to strengthen my leadership skills through TREC, courtesy of the Wilburforce Foundation. It was a transformative experience that has left me with new insights and much food for thought.

When it comes to leadership, many of us fall into the trap of trying to be like someone else. We ask ourselves, “How can I inspire like Jane Lubchenco or speak out like Stephen Schneider?” Pick your heroes. But the point is, these are the wrong questions. Being a leader isn’t about being like someone else. Instead, it’s about finding your own voice and being who you are. There’s no single way to be a leader.

So earlier this month, amidst the stunning scenery at a Montana ranch just outside of Yellowstone, I embarked on my new leadership journey. We began with a focus on us: How can I show up more authentically as a leader? How can I lean into discomfort to push past my current limits?

Reflections of the Gallatin Mountains in the pond at the B-Bar Ranch, Emigrant, Montana.  Photo courtesy of Amanda Hardy.

Making time for reflection is crucial for leadership growth. A scene from my time reflecting at the B-Bar Ranch, Emigrant, Montana.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Hardy.

For me, being a more effective leader begins with letting go of comparing myself to others and the “I’m not good enough” stories I carry around about myself. Instead of focusing on how I’m less charismatic or have less sparkle than others, how am I awesome?

The ‘let me tell you how I’m awesome’ exercise was truly painful for me (I literally began with “I’m awesome at stalling…”). After all, I’m trained as a scientist. I’m highly critical, especially of myself. I wear a scientist’s suit of armor – an armor of objectivity, prestige, and cynicism. As a community, we scientists have a hard time talking about ourselves. It’s dangerous to expose our vulnerabilities and take risks. We’re not inclined to share our stories – of failure or triumph.

But, effective leadership requires taking risks. And taking risks requires being vulnerable. Scientists (and I suspect this is true of academia more broadly) shy away from vulnerability. Being vulnerable shakes our foundations of legitimacy and credibility. But being truly vulnerable is a pathway to leadership.

One key dimension of vulnerability is recognizing where your natural leadership tendencies benefit you, and where they do not. Based on Leadership that Gets Results, there are six leadership tendencies. I tend towards a visionary style that focuses strongly on strategy and gives people the freedom to choose how to achieve that vision. Others emphasize harmony and relationship-building (called affiliative). Coaches develop people for the future. Those with democratic tendencies ensure that all voices are heard. Commanders tend towards “do as I say.” Pacesetters set high performance standards and assume others will follow.

None of these is the “right” style of leadership. All six can lead to positive results. But, not all work equally well in all contexts. A democratic style breaks down in a crisis, and pacesetting doesn’t work well with less-motivated supervisees. Growing as a leader takes both knowing your tendencies and then being willing to lean into those that don’t come naturally, but might be called for in a given situation. For me, leaning in means becoming a more effective coach and stretching even further to become a commander, when called for.

Which of these dimensions is the biggest stretch for you? Perhaps it’s building greater trust to foster more effective collaborations, becoming a better coach for your graduate students, or articulating a compelling vision and rallying others to join you.

Many of you are increasingly standing up as leaders to make your science matter. Channeling that energy will require finding new ways to show up and speak out, especially given the intrinsic link between communication and leadership. It is my hope that leadership training will become part of the dialogue around change we’re seeing in academia right now, as it holds the potential to be transformational for you, as individual scientists, and the community writ large.

Creativity and innovation are born from taking risks and being vulnerable. In the words of Brené Brown (borrowing a phrase from Theodore Roosevelt), leadership requires “Daring Greatly.” As a scientist, what change do you wish to see in the world? What risks are you willing to take to be an effective leader of that change?

About Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is the Managing Director of COMPASS. She's an ecologist and outdoor enthusiast who loves living in Oregon's Willamette Valley -- a rich landscape of old growth forests, bountiful agriculture, scenic wineries, and gorgeous hikes nestled between the mountains.


  1. Karen,

    This is an important blog. I really appreciated reading it. Thank you!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks, Deb. I know that in your role you see that scientist suit-of-armor often. Are you seeing any changes within your institution to shift some of those norms?

  2. I really appreciate you sharing with in the role you have. Opening the discussion helps to open the way we can help us all with the issues we are working on. The view of the process was very important to share and opening yourself to the discussion was very hard to do but also very important to your growth. Goodness grows with all we are doing and this is one of the ways you are helping to grow the goodness in our work. The Arctic light is in the 24 hour phase and this is brightness to my day which says a lot from here. I really appreciate getting to learn from you and ways that we can help improve the decisions affecting our lands and waters. Reaching out to others in this process helps to open them to the issues and brings goodness. Thank you for thinking through this and bringing the training into a venue that will help others. I learned from your writing and willingness that goodness is strong and we can make it stronger by opening ourselves to ways that we can add to the goodness.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks, Rosemary. You’re right. When we take risks, it helps others feel safe in taking their own. And lofty praise to know that I brought light to your already bright Arctic day!

  3. Liz Neeley says:

    I love how this dovetails with another dimension of leadership in science – mentorship. Acclimatrix just wrote a great piece about choices she’s facing as a new PI and the way she’ll manage her grad students at

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Liz. I especially loved this (parallel) piece in that post: “I suspect the kind of mentor I want to be is the kind I already am.”

  4. Nicole Layman says:

    I appreciated Karen’s personal story and the resources she included about leadership that get results. I hope future professional trainings and college courses will incorporate these topics into their curriculum. Thank you for sharing!!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks, Nicole. I too hope we start to see this kind of training become available for more scientists. There’s definitely momentum …

  5. Tessa Francis says:

    Karen, I really appreciate this! I think the advice to “risk being yourself” is useful at all stages of a science career, and you’ve given some great insight into the case of science leadership. Even for we early career scientists, this is poignant advice: identify who you are, figure out when being you is what is called for, and find ways to stretch yourself to fill the gaps. I also love knowing this leadership classification scheme. This will be helpful to carry forward with me!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Glad you found this helpful, Tessa. Totally agree that we could all stand to risk being ourselves, no matter where we are on our journey (and even if we’re not scientists, but I think may be especially true for us).

  6. Fabulous post Karen! There is so much here that I’m not sure where to begin. But I think I’ll “dovetail” on Liz’s mentoring remark! For many of us in academia, perhaps we have failed to realize that we are already leaders in the classroom and in mentoring students if we have a lab or research group. That’s where I came to realize that I had to be me in terms of a leader. I found that I could not lead in all of the same ways that my major professor led, as much as I admired him. I had to put together my own concoction of skills and qualities, some incorporating his techniques, but mostly my own, in order to try lead effectively.

    So your section on the 6 leadership qualities was particularly helpful to me. I’m good at the affiliative (especially as I can’t bear to have conflict), the coaching, and the democracy, but am weak on commanding, and could be much better at visionary, as well as pacesetting (as I will often set a pace that does not fit others, and thus cannot effectively lead). I so much agree that none is the right style at all times. That’s what certainly keeps things interesting!

    Regarding the risks that we are willing to take, I can’t help but recall Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” recently profiled on 60 Minutes, . Yes, the gender discussion plays a role here, and but it would be so interesting to discuss this topic with both men and women. I so very, very much agree that leadership (including science communication) should be part of graduate training (and loved the link to J. Gill’s blog post). At least we have this started in many programs with TA training (a form of leadership training, in my humble opinion).

    Karen, thanks again for another thought-provoking and inspiring post! Hope your TREC experience continues to strengthen you!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks for sharing pieces of your story, Dawn, and the ways in which you realize you have to step up as you rather than someone else in order to lead and mentor. Regarding the potential for gender differences, the men in my TREC cohort are impressively willing to be vulnerable. And I’m certain my next visit to the B-Bar (in Oct) will inspire a new post.

  7. And what a stunning photo!!!

  8. Great post! I love the idea that “being truly vulnerable is a pathway to leadership”. That if we are brave enough to let our authentic selves shine, that makes us inspirational as mentors.


    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks, Georgeann. I do think a “warts and all” approach to mentoring is often much more effective than many scientists might fear.

  9. Karen-Great blog piece! Another dimension that may be of interest to you, and something that my group has been trying to tap into, is literature (by Goodwin, Dahlstrom, Maibach and others) that suggests that vulnerability also engenders trust with one’s audience. We have been thinking about this in terms of how we speak about climate change, and how the use of generalities (such as increases in average temperature, poleward shifts in range boundaries, etc) can potentially backfire. For example, averages are just that, and so in any individual case the actual observation may or may not match the generality. When the observation fails to meet that generalized expectation, the lay view is that the generality is then false. When a scientist further explains that the real issue is the aggregate trend, then s/he is viewed as making post hoc excuses (eg even if it is not getting warmer in your back yard, that doesn’t mean the Earth isn’t getting warmer on average). We’ve been thinking about how making explicit predictions might help, even in cases where they will invariably fail. Weather forecasters capitalize on this, and so end up being disproportionately well-trusted; even if they get it wrong on any particular day, on average they get it right. Note that this is very different than making a generic prediction (e.g. saying every day that it will rain tomorrow, and on average being right) which is what we as climate scientists tend to do (it will get warmer, species will move poleward, etc).

    Just some food for thought, and excuse the rambling, but thought it was a nice tie-in to your very cool discussion.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Great food for thought, Brian, and a highly relevant tie-in. I look forward to continuing this conversation, perhaps at ICCB in Baltimore in 2 wks? Will you be there?

  10. Marty Downs says:

    Nice post, Karen. I wanted to add a plug for the Earth Science Women’s Network (, which offers some truly great leadership training for women in the science community. About 70 of us attended a training in June ( where we covered many of the same topics (and leadership styles) that you mention. ESWN is an outstanding resource for networking and professional development – if you consider yourself anywhere close to an earth scientist, sign up for the list and keep an eye out for their next trainings.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks for making this connection, Marty. Really glad to hear of this resource for women in the earth sciences.

  11. Lynne Houck says:

    Wow! Thanks for these insights… I’ve been thinking hard about teaching in large classes: Students have many different styles of learning, and it’s daunting to keep everybody happy. I’m going to talk about this at the start of the term, and encourage students to help come up with solutions.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      You’re right, Lynne. One size doesn’t fit all! Just as there are many leadership styles, there are many learning styles. Good luck!

  12. Anna Goldstein says:

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts! You are echoing what my peers and I have discovered about our graduate education: it is completely lacking in the skills that will be most useful in work/life after the PhD.

    I’ve never heard of those 6 tendencies before, but your overall advice matches well with the leadership training I’ve been exposed to so far. Being self-aware and taking a risk by opening yourself up to feedback–the importance of those two steps can’t be overstated. Anyone who expects to lead bright, internally-motivated people in complex, knowledge-based work must first understand the relationships between those people and themselves.

  13. Karen McLeod says:

    I appreciate your feedback, Anna, and the link to your blog. I agree that connection is at the heart of all that we do (not just as scientists, but as human beings). I am hopeful that graduate training of the future (after all, change is happening! ) will embrace helping future scientists gain greater self-awareness and leadership skills to tackle the challenges they’ll face in the world, no matter what career path they choose.

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