Leading from the front: what we can learn from the Army

Army leadership

Former British Army officer and current PhD student, Nadia Soliman, discusses the importance of leadership in academia and the lessons we can learn from the Army’s renowned leadership programmes. 


In my opinion the Army and academic institutions are very similar: both are organisations that work globally, across cultures and are dependent upon their people doing remarkable things to tackle some of the greatest challenges. However, one of the stark differences between the Army and academia is how the two train and equip people for the challenges they face in their job.

“What this needs is good leadership…”

When problems – both in terms of our research and research culture – are being discussed at scientific meetings and conferences, I often hear the phrase: “what this needs is good leadership.” Full stop. No further explanation. No direction. No bringing people together. No building, developing and coaching the team to achieve that goal. The phrase, “what this needs is good leadership,” always makes me shudder. It is simultaneously vacuous and empowering, and completely intangible. I appreciate that everyone will be able to draw upon examples of good and bad leadership, but these will differ considerably. Recognising that good leadership is required is important, but where are these good leaders?

The skills we learn during our PhD and postdoctoral research positions are typically not those required to lead a research group. There is too little training in personnel management, project management, budget management, teaching, coaching and mentoring (some training is available to those who seek it out), yet these are the skills that are required daily. In academia, promotion is predicated upon how good you are as a scientist. But academic credentials do not reflect the skills people will require in more senior positions. In this context, the fact that some people struggle with the demands of a leadership role is not a surprise – they haven’t been adequately prepared. And this has a negative impact on everybody.

The makings of a leader

The Army has spent many years developing its leadership code. Their approach continually evolves but they have devised what works for them. Academic institutions should do the same. I think that leadership development has been neglected, something which is misguided. As an early career researcher, I hear many stories about PIs’ striving for research ‘excellence’ at the cost of their researchers. It is time that academia puts people at the centre.

Leaders of research groups are role models for early career scientists, and they have a critical role in promoting the shift towards creating healthier research environments. A good leader (PI) has an inspiring vision and will use their professional knowledge to set research priorities that motivate, inspire and help others to achieve that vision. Leaders within academia should ensure that they unlock their teams’ full potential, teaching, coaching and mentoring their team to make them ever stronger. They should promote a positive learning environment, destigmatise failure and celebrate success. They value the input of each team member; recognise everyone’s contributions, boosting confidence and motivation. They support professional development and well-being. Together, these actions of the leader will galvanise a group of people to achieve a common goal, sometimes one that was not thought possible.

Army leadership

Lead by example from the top down, the bottom up, from side to side

For those who are currently in a leadership positions, understanding and taking ownership of your responsibilities is important as a leader. Do not pay lip service to the ‘softer’ people-focused activities that are required. Leaders must work to truly understand the responsibilities of those around them. They must give clear guidance to their team members including their role within the team, establish a code of conduct and the high scientific, personal and professional standards that are expected, and uphold these if they are broken. This enables independent action, as well as fostering a strong team ethos.

Training from the get-go

The basic principles must be taught at the earliest career stage, whether that is private soldier or undergraduate student. Leadership is not something that can be taught in an afternoon workshop; leadership development is a complex, an ever-evolving process and it must occur daily. On-the-job development, coaching and feedback are great ways we can routinely develop our emerging leaders amidst our day-to-day research. However, I believe it also important to allocate specific time and space for deliberate leadership development, where people pause from the demands of their day to day and focus on collective leadership development.

This calls for the formalisation of a leadership development programme. Workshops and courses for staff and students are available but these are attended on a self-selecting basis and therefore many will be missing out on important professional development. Training must be well-resourced, demanding yet realistic and accessible to all. It will equip people with the skills, confidence, integrity and moral courage to ensure best scientific practice and make valuable contributions to the team. These skills must also be revisited, re-trained and reinforced as people gain further promotions up through the ranks.

Becoming greater than the sum of our parts

To close, the Army does leadership training well and we can learn from them. Like those in the army, academic careers can be extremely demanding. However, delivering more structured and timely leadership training at key stages within the career pathway will ensure that people uphold the values of their institution, have a thorough knowledge of their profession, and are constantly developing themselves and others.

Leadership training is not going to be a panacea, but I do think it could go a long way to engendering a more positive working environment as people will be better equipped to cope with the challenges of academic life. By investing more in our people, improving our teams’ capabilities, and fostering successful collaborations, we as a community will achieve much more – we will be greater than the sum of our parts.

Watch Nadia’s presentation for Women@Imperial Week.

Nadia Soliman (@Nadia_Soliman_ ) is undertaking a PhD in the Pain Group at the Department of Surgery & Cancer and served in the British Army for five years.

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