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Learning to Lead Recap: Tips from Tried and True Mentors

By Shefali Rai, December 1 2020—

Identify, plan, execute, invest and finally lead. ­A quick google search can give a handful of easy tricks, checklists and one-stop-shop solutions for growing leaders. Buzzwords such as accountability, pioneering and optimization can leave students with more questions than answers. Yet how many of us are unexpectedly thrown into the realm of being mentors and leaders without any training or prior accreditations?

As we dive deeper into our academic and professional careers, the number of eyes looking up at us to handle situations confidently and with poise exponentially increases. Conversely, the number of tools and resources available to prepare us seem to be limited to a rectangular search bar. 

A recent REALISE module, offered by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute’s REALISE Program and designed by graduate students, gathered a panel of esteemed leaders: Drs. Jeff Dunn, Hedwich Kuipers, Deborah Kurrasch and Wee Yong to provide much needed advice on leadership. 

Drs. Dunn and Yong had diverging paths that shaped their leadership style. Dr. Dunn credits his style to years of experience, stating that, “supervising a lot of graduate students over the years gives [him] an edge.” Along with being “very aware of social media [to understand] problems that students have and opportunities to see current situations from the eyes of the student,” Dr. Dunn focuses his attention on remaining sensitive to current issues. 

While Dr. Yong’s overall style hasn’t changed over the years, instead what has evolved is “the accumulation of more skills and tools [to add to his toolkit] along the way.” Inspired from his mentor at the University of McGill, Dr. Yong is “guided by the simple concept that if the person around him does well then he does well.” 

Honing in on a style of leadership will be a personal journey for many of us, and even among the panelists there is no “correct” way or approach of leading. Students generally share some similar traits – we learn by doing, practicing, and continually educating ourselves. From this panel of respected leaders, we may not be able to or even have a desire to mimic their exact leadership approach, but rather use this panel’s strategies and methods as building blocks to form our own unique style. 

Dr. Kurrasch takes a more parenting-like approach to mentoring her students. If a situation were to arise where someone unintentionally caused damage to her lab or spoiled experiments, Dr. Kurrasch’s strategy is three-fold – employ communication with the individual, recognize everyone’s opinions and feelings on the matter and identify when the time comes to move on from the incident. 

Agreeing with Dr. Kurrasch’s approach is Dr. Kuipers, adding that while “mistakes happen and life is unfair,” a key strategy to dealing with unexpected curveballs is to “let people make their mistakes and take the initiative on how to deal with it.” Dr. Kuipers believes in “guiding people through the learning process,” rather than handling the entire situation for them. 

Dr. Dunn adds that, “you can anticipate [these problems] as a Supervisor and give examples of how things will be dealt with… [in order to] generate a bridge before a crisis happens so the student has a path [forward].”

Dealing with an unintentionally caused crisis might seem less intimidating now. However, an entire book genre has yet to be named Unintentional Crisis Resolution. Conflict resolution on the other hand even has its own 100 best of all-time book list. Managing conflicting personalities and work styles is an area of expertise for all the panelists. 

“[It’s like] living with a bunch of roommates you didn’t get to pick,” emphasizes Dr. Kurrasch. As the leader of these somewhat randomly placed roommates, Dr. Kurrasch has the daunting task of “managing the ship.” Luckily, she has equipped her toolkit with several strategies – litmus test questions during the interview process, team building exercises such as personality tests and engaging speakers to expand soft skills such as financial management. One litmus test question Dr. Kurrasch is quick to deploy is to “ask about a job [they] held outside of research.” The answer to said question is to gauge whether the interviewee has an “inherent motivation” and a complimentary work ethic with that of Dr. Kurrasch. 

Contributing to the resource side of conflict management, Dr. Dunn wants his students to understand the array of options available at the University of Calgary if someone is faced with serious conflicts. He recognizes the “biggest barrier [students] feel is that they will be judged or punished” for coming forward with a conflict situation and focuses his efforts on “setting up a safe path to [his] office.” Along with options to visit your Program Director(s) and various mental health resources on campus, there are also conflict coaching sessions available from Student Services. 

Being a mentor is more than just putting out fires. Dr. Yong changes his approach “depending on the student and circumstances he is dealing with,” but ultimately he simply wants to “ensure [his students’] progress steadily” through this time of “exciting intellectual and experimental development.” 

As growing leaders ourselves, we most likely will not find useful answers from an internet list titled, “10 tips on becoming better leaders.” Although, a few bumper sticker quotes from tried and true mentors might be exactly what we need – Dr. Dunn: “Don’t Judge. Listen,” Dr. Kuipers: “Don’t Worry You’ll Mess Up,” Dr. Kurrasch: “Be Kind Always” and Dr. Yong: “You Take Away What You Put In.”


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