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How These 3 Leadership Skills Can Protect Your Career During A Recession

phd leader at work in conferencd

Contributing Author: Sarah Smith, PhD

The current crisis reminds me of something that happened to me years ago.

I had an interview with a big company, and it was scheduled to take place on an upper floor of a tall building.

I took the elevator, which turned out to be the wrong choice.

Normally, I’d have chosen the stairs, but I was feeling nervous and didn’t want to make my heart rate increase – it was already beating fast.

The elevator got about halfway up to my floor and abruptly stopped.

The doors didn’t open.

There were several other people in there with me, and I don’t like to be in small spaces.

I had already been nervous, but now I was panicking. 

I felt like no matter how much I breathed, my lungs couldn’t get enough air.

A woman in the elevator asked if she could hold my hand, which I thought was strange, but I was too dazed to protest.

I nodded, too breathless to actually say anything.

This woman started talking to me about her morning routine and how her husband had 3 pairs of slippers.

She told me about her dog, that people always thought it was a pitbull (it was not).

Slowly, I relaxed.

I listened to her talk about the funny little details of her life until the elevator finally started moving again. 

The whole time, that woman had remained calm and friendly, like we were acquaintances who bumped into each other at the grocery store.

When it was over, we both got off at the next floor, and I awkwardly thanked her before rushing up to my interview.

I didn’t get the job probably because my nerves and distractedness were obvious during the interview.

But I still remember that woman…

She was a leader.

As a lifetime academic, I had always avoided thinking of myself as a leader.

How could I manage or lead anyone?

I was just a quiet denizen of my university lab – I had planned on being a professor before I realized it wasn’t a viable career path.

But the empathy and strength of that woman stuck with me.

She showed me the human side of leadership – a side I knew I possessed.

That experience inspired me to develop my leadership skills throughout my career, and I eventually became a manager in industry.

Leaders don’t have to come from a specific background or follow a particular style.

PhDs are in a great position to take on leadership roles, and if you allow yourself to be optimistic, you will come to realize that now—in the midst of a recession—is the ideal time to work on those leadership skills. 

Maybe even as the CEO of your own business.

It’s a far cry from being a professor, but PhDs have what it takes.

Why The Recession Is Your Chance To Develop As A Leader

Would you scoff at the idea of a PhD as a successful industry leader?

If so, realize that PhD leadership is not a new idea – the number of people who recognize PhDs as natural leaders is increasing everyday..

For example, the Arts Education Policy Review argued that PhDs are excellent choices as leader leaders for what they call “intellectual entrepreneurship,” an attitude of engagement with the world with an emphasis on innovation.

For some reason, though, most PhDs never work toward major leadership roles.

Only a few of the largest companies in the world are run by PhD holders.

Yet the kind of drive and momentum that most PhDs possess is remarkable.

You have not only a strong technical background but a rare, high degree of willpower.

PhDs must look ahead to acquire their degrees – they have to innovate and see into the future of science.

These traits—foresight and strength of will—are in high demand right now.

The world is full of uncertainty from a viral outbreak and a damaged economy.

People are scared, and they need leaders.

Life may not be ideal right now, but there are still positive things – this is the perfect environment for PhDs who want to hone their leadership skills.

Maybe you’re a PhD who is thinking about starting up your own business.

Perhaps you already have, and you’re feeling panicked about what to do now that the economy is slumping.

Some PhDs are in the middle of a job search right now, looking to work for a startup or want to land a management role.

phd smiling

If you are a PhD who wants to take on some kind of leadership role, our current global crisis might look intimidating…

But leadership is not some magical trait that some people are born with.

Most leaders developed their skills with patience, humanity, and insights from research.

If you can rise as a leader during a time of crisis, your leadership skills will prepare you for most industry settings.

3 Ways PhDs Can Develop Leadership Skills During The Current Crisis

CEOs and entrepreneurs can’t falter at the first sign of trouble.

They have to be adaptive and persevere.

There will be hardships – there will be setbacks too.

That’s how life is for committed industry leaders, even for those who are just managing small teams.

That’s why now is a perfect time to discover what makes you a good leader.

Learning to thrive as a leader in the midst of current events will test your resolve, and reveal how ready you are for leadership.

If you can learn to lead now, you can be confident about your skills no matter the circumstances.

PhDs can see these challenges as experiments they can conduct.

Trial and error, problem solving, and future-focused innovation are the marks of a great leader. 

Failure is a part of the process, and when you fail, you have to try again.

Follow these principles of good leadership  – these are always good practices, but they become more important when there is a crisis at hand.

1. Take the healthy approach to control.

Almost without exception, good leaders have an internal locus of control (LOC).

Research indicates that if you feel in charge of your life, you will have easier access to the confidence a leader needs.

A belief in the opposite can damage your leadership potential – if you think that your life is mostly controlled by random events and other people, you will struggle to maintain the drive that pushes good leaders forward.

With an external locus of control, you will find yourself asking, 

Why bother? I can’t guarantee the results I want, so I shouldn’t even try.

Who will be inspired by a leader like that?

No one.

PhDs must draw their sense of control from the same thing that pushed them to get their advanced degree.

You were strong enough to push through academia to get your PhD, and you can approach industry in a similar way.

During a crisis, you must develop your internal locus of control – without an internal LOC, you will crumble under the weight of external factors like economic slumps and quarantines.

confident phd leader sitting

As a leader, if you find yourself seeking too much control and micromanaging other people or procedures during a crisis, this suggests you are looking to external things for a sense of control.

Accept that external events are not always under your control, and focus on the things you can do something about.

Hand off tasks to the people you are managing, and allow them to do their jobs.

2. Guide your organization toward the right future.

Some people actually enjoy leading in a crisis. 

They get a sense of pleasure or comfort from managing tasks and other daily activities.

But in a crisis, a leader cannot focus on the immediate too heavily.

It’s easy to slip into this pattern – in a crisis, everything seems urgent.

It might ease your discomfort to manage things that can get you results right now.

Daily activities like social media views or content production can occupy the forefront of your mind, but there’s something more important…

During a crisis, leaders have to think about the future.

What will happen in the next month?

What about next year?

Delegate some of the immediate tasks to your workers, and trust them to do good work.

Again, PhD leaders need to avoid micromanaging during a crisis.

According to research published in MIT Sloan, if your workers expect you to micromanage them, they may actually avoid telling you about important issues that need your attention.

They are not running an operation, so they may be more concerned about their own day-to-day responsibilities.

Your job as a leader is to guide your organization, not to fixate on the smaller details.

3. Draw answers from your team.

You probably don’t have the answer to every problem that arises.

Some leaders can be harsh with themselves about this – they might become angry that they don’t have a solution on hand right away.

phd leading meeting

But good leaders don’t simply solve problems with a wave of their hand.

And it’s okay not to have all the answers – that’s what your team is there for.

A good leader should use their team as a resource, taking suggestions and advice from the people they are managing.

It is the leader’s job to coordinate these suggestions into a future-focused plan of action, and then assign the right work to the right team members.

An added benefit to using your team for advice is that they will feel valuable for contributing.

They will develop a sense of community and a positive feeling about their place in it.

It wouldn’t be a crisis if it could be easily solved – that means now is an excellent time to practice coordinating a team and drawing solutions from its members.

By using multiple perspectives, you can better understand how to approach solutions and move forward.

So adapt to the current situation and apply these leadership skills to every interaction in your professional life (where possible). Take the healthy approach to control, guide your organization toward the right future, and draw answers from your team. With practice, your leadership skills will grow, and you can find yourself thriving in ways an academic never thought possible.


To learn more about being a leader in industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

Sarah Smith, PhD


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