Finding your way to leadership

In-depth analysis

December 5, 2019

The nuclear industry needs leadership for continued successful operation and to steer through today’s economic, technical and political challenges. But while the issues themselves are being well studied and documented, the nature of leadership itself is often quite unclear. Jeremy Gordon asks a range of nuclear leaders what we really mean when we talk about leadership and how young professionals can discover their own leadership role.

Young people coming up in the industry hear advice on leadership from people already acknowledged as leaders by virtue of positions as directors and CEOs, but not everyone has the desire or ability to work at that level. And isn’t it logical to wonder whether such leaders would prefer most of their staff to follow them rather than be concerned with leading themselves? For managers in the middle, what might be the appropriate level of leadership to show to your reports, while you report to a leader?

These concepts can be disentangled somewhat by boiling down the meaning of the word leadership. Very simply, to be a leader is to be influential and to provide direction. Yet in a professional context that can mean many different things. Therefore a tailored approach would be appropriate to create a clear vision of your own personal leadership role. That means identifying the kinds of influence that are required from someone in your role, as well as those you are personally able to provide.

With all this in mind, should we think of leadership as something you need to use constantly, or selectively? And how do you know when the time is right to show leadership?

Todd Allen is the Chair of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Scienes Department at the University of Michigan and has previously been a submarine officer, laboratory researcher, academic, senior executive, and think tank fellow. “I think leadership can always be shown, but you need to recognize your role,” he told me. “In some cases, you are trying to motivate others and have the advantage of a level of authority. In others, you are trying to motivate more through your actions, or through a more limited positional authority.  Even if you have no title, you can lead through the excellence of your actions.

“Leadership is about far more than ‘being the leader’,” said Adriènne Kelbie, Chief Executive of the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation. “Supporting others to excel, thrive and grow is, in itself, leadership. So when you’re not in charge of the task, you still demonstrate leadership by making the team the best it can be.”

Peter Prozesky, CEO of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, underlined that leadership should not be confused with hierarchy: “Anyone who influences others to achieve a common goal is exercising a form of leadership. It is ultimately a matter of the individual exercising judgement as to when and how strongly to influence others around them.”

Those with ambition to progress in the industry should get started early on their leadership skills. “Leadership is a mindset, so I think it’s constant,” added Adriènne Kelbie.

William D. Magwood, IV, Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and a former NRC Commissioner, said young leaders should be ready to use their skills “every second of every day,” and be mindful that with this power comes responsibility: “Leaders can’t have bad days. They have to consider themselves on stage 100% of the time.”

In short, taking on the mantle of being a leader means committing to perform to the best of your ability at all times.

Even if you are not the assigned leader for a task, it’s not appropriate to relax into the mode of being a ‘follower’ instead. Bill Magwood said, “Rather than think of ‘followers’ in a nuclear organisation, it is better to think of ‘active and engaged team members’, where all are working toward common goals.”

“You can still continue to influence how others align themselves with the direction mapped out by someone else,” said Peter Prozesky. “Here you are still playing a form of leadership role within the team, albeit a subordinate one. Don’t underestimate your power to influence to adopt or undermine the direction given by the leader.”

“It’s about using your personal power for the good of everyone, not a job or a title,” Adriènne Kelbie put it succinctly.

Some rules of thumb to find the right level of leadership from Todd Allen: “Make sure you understand the goal and your role in accomplishing it before taking action. Respect the work of others in the group so that you can optimize the overall project success. Be a good listener before being an active talker.

Knowing when to listen and when to speak takes on more importance in roles related to nuclear safety because, “No matter what role they play, everyone must assume a personal responsibility for safety,” said Bill Magwood. “Noting the behaviour of peers or leaders that may impact safety requires everyone to be prepared to speak up and voice concerns. This is an aspect of leadership.”

Knowing the goal, your role towards it and being ready to direct your influence through careful communication, then, are key abilities which need to be kept switched on at all times, even in lower levels in the hierarchy of work.

Finding your style

As a person’s career progresses and they find themselves holding more responsibility, or if they have ambition to make it to the highest levels, control of their personal style becomes increasingly important. There are as many styles of leadership as there are personalities and organisational structures. They range between the Visionary, who earns trust and builds confidence in grand new ideas, to the Servant, who focuses on maximising the fulfilment of their staff for higher performance, and from the Hands-Off approach of delegation with little supervision to Autocratic styles in which a leader will personally control every detail.

In my time as Editor of World Nuclear News I took what is sometimes called a Pacesetting approach, driving the agenda with quick decisions and delegation, supporting my colleagues’ latitude to make their own choices on how to tackle their work, but being ready to step in with support at any time. The choice of a suitable style of engagement and personal presentation is yours alone to make.

“As early as possible in their careers,” said Peter Prozesky, up-and-coming professionals “should set about studying different leadership skills and assess their natural strengths as well as areas to be developed. By building on their strengths and recognising their weaknesses, they can apply the appropriate styles to achieve their goals.”

“I think that all leaders both apply the style that is natural for them but do so informed by successful models they have observed,” said Bill Magwood, “While different situations require different responses, I believe that staff can detect when leaders wear masks to project an image.”

Adriènne Kelbie said, “Agile leadership is necessary to get the best out of different people, different situations and different cultures, so I think the answer is simply that we should always be ourselves and adapt our style to get the best out of the situation.”

There are no hard and fast rules to identify which style would work best for you or for interactions in your teams and between colleagues, but a useful exercise would be to spend time considering the styles of leadership shown by your previous managers, as well as your parents, teachers and colleagues. Which do you identify with, which styles worked in which situations and why. Look also at online resources to remind yourself of the leadership styles that are common in the workplace.

Think about the types of personality you are working with, as well as your own. “If you tend to be more introverted, you will not want constant interaction with folks and will need time by yourself to re-energize,” said Todd Allen. “Take the time you need, but recognise that others may want more of you than you are comfortable with. Stretch yourself to give them your time. If you are an extrovert, you’ll want more interactions. That’s fine, but try to understand that the introverts on your team will benefit from less of you.”

Nobody’s perfect

One important quality of a leader, according to Bill Magwood, is the humility “to say that they don’t have all the answers and are willing to turn to others who bring valuable skills or insights to a problem.”

For Todd Allen, “There are cases when you will need to make a decision before you are ready. Accept that it may not go smoothly. Look to adjust as you see how well your decision is going. If you accept and admit the limits of your decision and ask for the help of your team along the way, you’ll likely adjust to a better answer.”

If you have been nominated as a future leader or find yourself in such a position, it is because you have been exhibiting some of these skills and abilities. Nobody was born with the full set, or a perfect personality that will naturally inspire the loyalty and trust of everyone they work with.

Leaders also need to cultivate enough self-awareness to know themselves and honestly appraise their abilities:

What makes you uncomfortable, what are you bad at doing or simply unable to do? It’s a good idea to research some ways you could improve your confidence or abilities in those areas to overcome them. Despite these efforts, you will still probably have genuine weaknesses that you will need to come to terms with. That means being on the look-out for those tasks and situations you are less well equipped to handle, and being ready to apply a suitable workaround. We need the integrity not to hide important realities about ourselves and our abilities from our working colleagues.

Adriènne Kelbie says, “The most important habit of any leader is to constantly ask ‘how can I help, and how can I better help you?’”

No matter which style of leadership appeals to you, or which may be a ready fit for the culture of your organisation, certain aspects of leadership are applicable at any level. The keys to leadership are knowing the team’s goal, knowing your own role towards it and supporting the team through judicious interventions and careful communication – including listening, because sometimes the team should be leading you.

With 16 years of communication experience in the international nuclear industry, Jeremy supports clients who want to humanise nuclear energy and improve its public image so that it can play a full role in human development and environmental protection.

Jeremy Gordon
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