I’ve heard this a few times recently, from various people in business and leadership. Once even from a PhD scientist who was leading a company!

There is a view that PhD scientists are academics. Stuck in the world of the mind. Used to working in isolation with data and lab results as their only companions. That therefore they are unable to communicate like normal human beings or to lead people. That they don’t have a business mindset.

I am not going to argue that this is entirely wrong, because those of us who did grow up in academia and research did in fact develop our brain in different ways to an individual who worked for years in PR. We weren’t taught leadership skills or to run businesses because it was something other people did. Because of that, some of us (not all by any means, because we are all different) may appear to have less communication skills, business knowhow or empathy with others. But we also have a huge capacity to learn, because that is what we spent years doing. We taught our brains to learn new information and new skills and to do it fast and well. And that capacity to learn can be applied in many, many, different ways.

The concept of Neuroplasticity is that we have a brain which is capable of growing and changing throughout our lives. It develops in the ways we ask it to develop. Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to learning can develop astonishing capacities within the brain. If we are currently lacking a technical skill set in our job role we can apply ourselves to learning it and usually develop it fairly quickly.

So why not to leadership abilities? Leadership skills are often viewed as soft skills. Communication. Empathy. Teamwork. Conflict Resolution. But also Critical Observation, Self-Awareness and Problem Solving.

Many people see these as part of our personality.

We are a people person or we are not.

But this assumes that personality is a fixed trait. So, first let’s question if that is the case.

Is our personality fixed?

If our brains are plastic. Capable of relearning, remodeling and rewiring then the notion that adult brains are fixed in structure and function is incorrect. And science has demonstrated over the last decade that this is the case.

Paraplegics receiving “brain training” have restored movement to their limbs and experienced partial neural recoveries. Older adults suffering a decline in memory and function have been able to improve their daily lives through training and developing the brain.

So how does this apply to personality?

Personality is not one overarching definition of a person. It is many traits which combined make up the sense of the person. You probably know for yourself that you are different in different situations. You act one way at work, with your kids, on a night out drinking with old high school friends. You have a different personality in each of these situations. So, if you can adapt to these differing situations then you demonstrate the flexibility of your personality.

If we look at the aspects of personality relating to leadership and examine them more closely we can begin to see the ways in which we can be more flexible. That we can begin to make changes. And just as with setting ourselves a new task or technical skill to learn so to we can set ourselves the task of learning new ways to act. To be with people.

To see these as isolated skills we can develop rather than a huge task of changing who we are enables us to make small but dramatic changes in how we interact with people. To adapt how we communicate and how we lead. These skills are the ones that we develop in order to lead companies to success. To inspire people. And there is no reason at all that a PhD scientist can’t do this as successfully as anyone else if they choose to do so.

John Lechleiter, former CEO of Eli Lilly is a PhD scientist and he did ok for himself and inspired his colleagues and employees to do great things!

So, this is to all the PhDs out there who want to develop themselves and their ideas. You have the capacity to lead and to achieve. You are already a master at learning new skills so – which areas do you want to improve, which areas do you need to develop to become a great leader and how are you going to take the first steps towards doing this?

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