Developing leadership skills in a Dutch university

Eva Lantsoght
7 Sep ’23

When you look at the evaluation criteria for faculty members in the Netherlands, you will find the usual suspects of teaching and research. As you climb the academic career ladder, the topic of leadership also becomes more and more important.

Leadership may be less quantifiable than our teaching evaluations (although these evaluations are a flawed instrument) and the amount of grant money we have obtained. We typically are also not trained during our PhD and studies to lead.

In today’s post, I want to look at how Dutch universities look at leadership, and how we can develop these skills.

First of all, when it comes to leadership, universities will typically have different expectations for faculty members at different levels. At Delft University of Technology, for example, four levels of leadership are considered: personal leadership, leading a project or team, leading a program or multiple teams, and leading in the organization. Personal leadership starts to play a role during the PhD, whereas leading the organization becomes important later in an academic career, as you may move into an administrative position.

So, what can you do to grow your leadership skills? In today’s post, I’d like to give you eight actionable ideas to work on this skillset:

1. Embrace personal leadership

From the PhD years, a big part of an academic career is a journey of self-discovery: finding your strengths and interests, as well as learning how to balance the various tasks on your plate. You can take courses offered in your university, read books, and use various self-assessment tools that are available online. Leadership starts from you, so setting a strong example for your team is key.

2. Gather feedback at various levels

Inviting feedback from your colleagues, students, and supervisors can offer valuable insights into your leadership style and strengths. Constructive criticism helps you identify blind spots and refine your approach. Within the Netherlands, you can use the 360 degree feedback instrument of the VSNU to get feedback from various people with whom you work.

3. Hone your project management skills

Effectively leading a project or team requires an understanding of project management. It will also require that you learn how to use the internal procedures and platforms of your university. Invest time in learning methodologies, tools, and techniques that streamline processes, optimize resource allocation, and ensure project success.

4. Gain experience through service

Volunteering for roles on technical committees, editorial positions, or other forms of service within your academic community can help develop your leadership skills. These experiences offer exposure to decision-making processes, strategic planning, working with contributors on volunteering efforts, and voting processes.

5. Get training on leading diverse teams

With the increasing diversity in academia, mastering the art of leading diverse teams is paramount. Learn to understand how your team members are unique and how you can best supervise each individual from their strengths and personality. Participate in workshops or seminars that address cultural competency, communication across differences, and fostering an inclusive environment.

6. Get coaching to reflect on your progress

Engaging with an independent coach provides a supportive space to reflect on your leadership journey. Their guidance helps you navigate challenges, refine your skills, unlock your potential as an academic leader, and identify which topics need attention and training for you to continue growing in your academic career.

7. Nurture a culture of mentorship

Be a mentor and have mentors. Mentor young colleagues, so that they can grow in their career and to support your overall academic community. Look for mentors who can help you navigate particular challenges in your academic career, as well as celebrate successes with you. I’m consciously focusing on multiple mentors here – one mentor can help you with the topic of balancing a career and family, whereas another mentor can help you navigate office politics, and another (international) mentor may help you grow within a research network.

8. Identify your core values

For me, knowing my core values, and showing up in all aspects of my academic career anchored in my core values, is key to knowing what to take on and what to decide. Once you know your three to five core values, you can lead from your values, and you will show up as a leader with a clearer profile.

Leadership may be a new challenge for you, but don’t despair. Your university first and foremost wants you to succeed, and you will see that you will be able to discuss and reflect on your leadership frequently with your supervisor(s), and that there are various courses and coaching trajectories on offer.

After all, leadership is a journey – as you grow your influence within the university and your academic network, you will learn more about yourself, those around you, and your university. Consider it an opportunity for growth, and keep an open mind for blind spots you may have missed in your personal reflections. Know that with leadership, you can make changes for the better in your university, and work towards a kinder and more balanced academia.

Recent blog posts