Do bloggers make bad leaders?

Sep 06 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Becca brought up an interesting point in two posts (1, 2) of the comment thread of the last post. The main point of both is summarized as:

Frankly, I've never read a profblog that makes me want to work for that prof. Lots of the profblogs I read make me want to take the person out for a drink, pick their brain even more, talk science, talk life, become friends in meatspace... work with them, sure. Work for them, not so much. Maybe I don't want to work for anyone, or maybe blogs in general can run toward the whinging side, and whinging is not a leadership trait.
That said, I think the whining does make the internet better (humanizing profs is good; it's presumably therapeutic for the writer; people know they aren't alone, ect.). If we assume people make a good faith effort to remove identifying details, I think it's good.....Some people lead well with a very personal touch, and some people lead well only with an 'all business' approach. There are differences in groups, and especially between individuals in these things. Probably the people who's blogs I read are a mix. But something about the blogging process lends itself toward revealing a side of someone that is not usually their strongest as a leader.

Becca partly answers her own question. Part of blogging (at least for me) is sharing some of the job's ugly underbelly for the benefit of others. I've spent a decent number of posts (especially around year 3) expressing some of my unhappiness in this job. At the time things were tough and I wanted that to come across to those following. Did I turn around and portray those same emotions to the people in my lab? Hell no.

One thing many PhDs and postdocs complain about is that they never see what the job is all about because their PIs don't show them how the sausage is made. In a lot of ways that is entirely intentional because showing you're scared shitless that the next grant is going to be triaged is not a great leadership trait. Trainees don't want to know you can't sleep because you're worried about how you're going to pay them all come summer or whether you'll have the money to get the data your experiments suggest you need. For better or worse, the PI has to come across as confident, especially in the face of crisis.

So, when you're reading PI blogs you're often getting more reality than the people in the labs being run by those bloggers.

19 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Yep.

  • DrivingBy says:

    Didn't CPP say "trainees are like digs, they can smell fear"? And of course you don't go around wearing your emotions on your sleeve for the trainees to see, that's like Leadership 101. Keep emotions in check in front of those who lead, and vent elsewhere if you must.

  • DrivingBy says:

    dogs, not digs
    Those you lead, not those who lead
    Sheesh. Stupid phone

  • gerty-z says:

    For sure. My students and postdocs don't need (or want) to see that I'm not optimistic and confident. I try to help them "see how the sausage is made" as part of mentoring their career development, but I have to keep my shit together. So they don't really have an idea of "what the job is like" because there are some things that get skipped over.

    Even if you don't blog, the underbelly exists. But the faculty discuss it with their peers, not trainees. If a PI blogs, the trainees can see what the underbelly is like. But it is ridiculous to think that if your PI doesn't blog that they aren't facing similar issues.

  • miko says:

    Pretty much the last thing I need or want to know is what my my PI is doing or worrying about most of the time. Knowing what all you bloggy PIs are doing and worrying about is incredibly informative, however.

  • Bashir says:

    wait, there's an underbelly?

  • Hermitage says:

    If reading someone give a frank assessment about the difficulties and rigors of a job you hope to have puts you off them as a leader/manager...you're a fucking idiot and unqualified to get a job in that field. Self-reflection and connection to reality are, imo, two of the most important qualities in a boss and a leader.

  • becca says:

    For the record, I do appreciate the window to the sausage factory.

    That said, even if a PI seems generally to be a decent person who cares about their trainees (which as far as I can tell you are), there seems to be a certain amount of inherent kvetching that doesn't sound appealing.

    For example, irrespective of how I'm personally feeling about 'hands on' management, I could find something to dislike in this blog, since you've said both:
    "However, there is a fine line between hands off and doesn't give a shit. "
    and
    "sometimes a PI isn't going to respond to even urgent requests for any number of reasons. Maybe she's tired and doesn't even want to think about lab bullshit right now. Maybe she needs other information before responding and has contacted others. Or maybe she just wants to see how you handle the situation. It could be all or none of the above, but sometimes a targeted withdrawal of attention is a feature, not a bug. "

    Neither of those assertions in themselves make you sound like a bad leader, but think of how negatively Romney's flip-flopping is viewed. I'm pretty sure no sane politician would ever blog.

  • odyssey says:

    wait, there's an underbelly?

    Yep. Key is to keep it facing downwards.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Becca, That's not flip flopping, those are completely different things taken from two different contexts. You also seem to be confusing blogging with managing, which are also two completely different thing from two different contexts.

  • All I'm saying is, some PI-trainee sausage-making-and-grilling-and-eating would be good times.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Science isn't enough of a sausage party for you?

  • JaneB says:

    Yup, very true! Also x2 to hermitage's comment

  • KateClancy says:

    Thanks for writing this, PLS. And frankly, maybe it's because I'm on the other side as a PI myself, but seeing folks be honest doesn't just make me want to have a drink with them, but respect them more as self-aware scientists. And thus, my guess is they are pretty darn good PIs to whom I would gladly send graduate students.

  • becca says:

    PLS- my point isn't that those views don't belong in a coherent philosophy of trainee management, my point is that whether I'm mad at my PI for meddling too much, or feeling like they just don't care (waaaaaaaaaah!), you've just confirmed my self-pitying trainee angst. Which happens a lot when I read profblogs, if I let it. Probably 90% of my prof directed snark about trainee issues relates to that. Duh. What did you people think I was doing besides using you as proxy punching bag profs*???

    (*Ok, mostly CPP is my proxy punching bag prof, and I'm totes convinced he deserves it, but yeah.)

  • physioprof says:

    One thing many PhDs and postdocs complain about is that they never see what the job is all about because their PIs don't show them how the sausage is made. In a lot of ways that is entirely intentional because showing you're scared shitless that the next grant is going to be triaged is not a great leadership trait. Trainees don't want to know you can't sleep because you're worried about how you're going to pay them all come summer or whether you'll have the money to get the data your experiments suggest you need. For better or worse, the PI has to come across as confident, especially in the face of crisis.

    Your internal emotional state has absolutely nothing to do with "how the sausage is made". To address your example, for example, the important point to convey to trainees is the following:

    Your next grant could be triaged, because any grant could be triaged. You have a to have a larger strategic funding plan for your lab that takes into account this reality. Just praying that your next grant doesn't get triaged is not a strategic plan.

    Whether these facts about being a PI in today's environment make you "scared shitless" or "giddy with excitement" is a matter for you and your therapist, and has nothing to do with mentoring. Effective mentoring is about what you should *do*, not how you should *feel*.

    And obviously, just as a matter of appropriate workplace behavior, negative emotions have very little place.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Well there goes my Pray for Pay strategy! Damnit!

  • [...] Do blogging academics make bad leaders? Interesting post, but as someone who wants to run their own lab one day, I wouldn’t mind knowing about these issues directly from my advisor. [...]

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