Don’t be falling down

Sense of Hearing, Philippe Mercier_crop.jpg
“The sense of hearing”, by Philippe Mercier

A group leader carries the responsibility of securing funding for the group, but it’s a burden, not a secret.

We all know that academia is stressful. We all know that securing funding is what keeps a research group going. And we know that losing that funding may mean you are no longer able to support the people in your group; you may no longer have an income yourself.

These are frightening prospects. This is the sort of stuff that wakes people up in the middle of the night and has them staring at the ceiling, “Queen’s Gambit”-style, trying to move chess pieces around a board.

As a group leader you may carry the responsibility for finding money, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one invested in the outcome of that process. The people in your group may depend directly on the outcome of your efforts and even if not, they will probably be emotionally invested in the survival of the group.

Joining a group is supposed to be like hitching a lift in a fast-moving car that’s heading for somewhere exciting far off over the horizon, not being trapped in a jalopy that ends up slowly nosing into a ditch or sinking to the bottom of a lake.

People take pride in belonging to a good group. And feeling pride in the group, feeling part of the group, means that they will want the group to prosper. What they’re doing may be only a small part of the group’s work, but it’s their part, their contribution to the group’s forward momentum. Yours might be the only pair of hands on the wheel, but it’s everyone that keeps the engine turning.

So if there is an existential threat to the group, whether serious or terminal, don’t conceal it. How would “Lord of the Rings” have been if Gandalf had just sat around in the Shire looking stressed, but when asked about it just said “Oh, nothing, nothing”? Wouldn’t have turned out well, for him or the hobbits. Plus, it would have been a shit film.

So share your troubles with your group. Don’t hide things if you’re under pressure. They’re part of the team, and if you’re under pressure then the threat is to the team and not just you, so let the team know and let them help.

Sharing is inclusive. It takes some of the burden off you, at least insomuch as there’s nothing being hidden, and it challenges the group as a whole to respond. It’s empowering. Get that preliminary data, get those preprints out, get those papers published, let everyone chip in. Generate the heat and light that tells the world that the group is doing good things and deserves to get the chance to keep doing good things.

Plus, keeping things secret only increases the emotional pressure on you at work, and unfairly prevents your team from mentally preparing for a potential bad outcome. It’s like bankrupts who hide their losses, or the unemployed concealing their status from their families. Netflix’s hit series “Bridgerton” shows one family driven to ruin by its head concealing his insolvency, making the ultimate denouement that much worse. Similarly, “Falling Down” portrayed a man going nuts because he’d lost his job and tries to hide it…up until he snaps.

In fact, there’s an entire genre of films and books about emotionally constipated men battling to hide their inner turmoil, hide their losses, hide the truth from their families, and usually failing to do so (with dramatic consequences). Ralph Fiennes has carved out a very successful movie career doing this over and over again. That’s entertainment.

But you don’t want dramatic consequences in real life. You want to know what the status is.

This isn’t bad management. It isn’t weak. Leadership doesn’t have to be of the stoic, strong & silent type, with some careworn distant figure grappling with unseen woes and suffering in silence.

As any good theatre director knows, it’s important not to show fear – but showing no fear does not mean hiding the risks. Be open, be optimistic, and be inclusive.

Prosper or perish, the group should do it together.

 
Dedicated to all the group leaders, young and old, trying to get funding right now. Good luck!

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