Category Archives: leadership

A brief respite in a long campaign to overcome coronavirus

Globally, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over.  However, government restrictions on movement and meeting people imposed at the start of the year combined with a successful vaccination programme have allowed a gradual return to normality in the UK since late April.  I have particularly appreciated this resumption of life over the past fortnight.  While most meetings are still conducted online, I have managed to meet most of my research students in person in our lab, in pavement cafes or occasionally in my office with the window open and wearing masks.  I have even been to the pub after work on two consecutive Tuesdays.  On the first occasion, it was after a progress meeting on a research project when we enjoyed continuing our discussion of a new idea over a couple of beers; and, on the second occasion, t with our faculty management team to celebrate the first anniversary of one of the team joining us, who had only met half the team in person.  On both occasions we had all tested negative using the lateral flow test and we sat outside in the sunshine.  I have also been to three concerts at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall where we wore masks throughout the concert and both the audience and orchestra were socially-distanced.  Last Thursday, I enjoyed Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’ as well as the world premiere of Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto.  The second concert featured works by Astor Piazzola which were a revelation to me.  I had never heard of him let alone his music and really enjoyed the concert.  However, as I write this post, the number of cases in Liverpool is rising rapidly and we are being advised to be more cautious in our interactions with other people.  Not enough people have been vaccinated and are taking regular tests to allow us to return to our previous state of social interactions.  Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we can eventually take back control of our lives from the coronavirus.  Our global society is a complex system, which like any other complex system, operates without central control but with simple operating rules generating self-organising and emergent behaviour [see ‘Destruction of society as a complex system?‘ on July 31st, 2019] that allows us to find new states to handle changed circumstances regardless of the efforts of politicians.

You can listen last Thursday’s concert on demand at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s website: https://liverpoolphil.com/whats-on/video-on-demand/on-demand-domingo-hindoyan-conducts-stravinsky-howard-ravel-and-prokofiev-with-peter-moore/3926

Collegiality as a defence against pandemic burnout

photograph of a flower for decorative purposes onlyMany of my less experienced colleagues ask, ‘what is collegiality?’  Collegiality is the glue that holds universities together according to Neeta Baporikar.  While Roland S. Barth suggested that if students are to learn and develop, then their teachers must also learn and develop and collegiality is the set of practices and culture that support this adult growth.  In this context, Thomas Hoerr has proposed that collegiality has five components: (i) teachers talking about students with teachers; (ii) teachers working together to develop education programmes; (iii) teachers observing one another; (iv) teachers teaching each other; and (v) teachers talking about education and working together on committees.  Neeta Baporikar echoes this view by concluding that if we hope to teach students to participate, examine issues, collaborate, think critically and synthesise new approaches then we should be their model.  

In an environment where research is a priority, it is possible to substitute ‘researcher’ for ‘teacher’ in the descriptions above.  Then collegiality becomes researchers talking about [research] students, researchers working together to develop research programmes, researchers observing one another, researchers teaching each other, and researchers talking about research and working together on committees.  The idea that collegiality is a strategy for excellence holds as well as for research as it does for teaching.

The pressures on early career academics in a research university can be intense and the temptation to focus exclusively on delivering teaching and performing research can lead individuals to work in isolation and to neglect the opportunities provided by active engagement with their colleagues.  However, leaders must also take responsibility for creating an environment in which collegiality can thrive and encouraging active participation – it is part our service to the academic community as leaders to create and maintain a culture of scholarship and excellence [see ‘Clueless on leadership style’ on June 14th, 2017].  Neeta Baporikar provides steps that heads of departments can take to nurture collegiality, including providing a vision, encouraging collaborative participation, listening to diverse opinions, building on people’s strengths, and being aware of the world outside the department.  This is similar to the shepherding approach to leadership that I wrote about in May 2017 [‘Leadership is like shepherding’ on May 10th, 2017].  However, it has all become much more difficult in a pandemic – both collegiality and leadership.  Last week an article in Nature suggested that pandemic burnout is rife amongst academics working long hours in isolation to transpose and deliver their teaching materials online, to maintain their research without the spontaneity of face-to-face discussions with their team or collaborators, and to support the well-being and mental health of students who are also at risk of burnout.  It is suggested that burnout can be managed by finding a forum to express your feelings, creating ways to detach from stress, prioritizing and normalizing conversations about mental health, and fighting the isolation through meeting with peers.  These steps are a combination of traditional collegiality and the five ways to well-being: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give [see graphic in ‘On the impact of writing on well-being’ on March 3rd, 2021].

References

Neeta Baporikar, Collegiality as a strategy for excellence in academia, IJ Strategic Change Management, 6(1), 2015.

Roland Barth, Improving schools from within, Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Virginia Gewin, Pandemic burnout is rampant in academia, Nature, 591: 489-491, 2021.

Thomas R. Hoerr, Principal Connection: The Juggler’s Guide to Collegiality, Communication Skills for Leaders, 72(7): 88 -89, 2015.

Psychological entropy increased by ineffectual leaders

Decorative image of a flowerYou might have wondered why I used ‘entropy’, and ‘psychological entropy’ in particular, as examples in my post on drowning in information a couple of weeks ago [‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021].  It was not random.  I spent some of the Christmas break catching up on my reading pile of interesting looking scientific papers and one on psychological entropy stimulated my thinking.  Psychological entropy is the concept that our brains are self-organising systems in a continual dialogue with the environment which leads to the emergence of a relatively small number of stable low-entropy states.  These states could be considered to be assemblies of neurons or patterns of thoughts, perhaps a mindset.  When we are presented with a new situation or problem to solve for which the current assembly or mindset is unsuitable then we start to generate new ideas by generating more and different assemblies of neurons in our brains.  Our responses become unpredictable as the level of entropy in our minds increases until we identify a new approach that deals effectively with the new situation and we add it to our list of available low-entropy stable states.  If the external environment is constantly changing then our brains are likely to be constantly churning through high entropy states which leads to anxiety and psychological stress.  Effective leaders can help us cope with changing environments by providing us with a narrative that our brains can use as a blueprint for developing the appropriate low-entropy state.  Raising psychological entropy by the right amount is conducive to creativity in the arts, science and leadership but too much leads to mental breakdown.

Sources:

Hirsh JB, Mar RA, Peterson JB. Psychological entropy: A framework for understanding uncertainty-related anxiety. Psychological review. 2012 Apr;119(2):304

Handscombe RD & Patterson EA, The Entropy Vector: connecting science and business, Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2004.

My Engineering Day

Photograph of roof tops and chimneys in Liverpool.Today is ‘This is Engineering’ day organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering to showcase what engineers and engineering really look like, celebrate our impact on the world and shift public perception of engineering towards an appreciation that engineers are a varied and diverse group of people who are critical to solving societal challenges.  You can find out more at https://www.raeng.org.uk/events/online-events/this-is-engineering-day-2020.  I have decided to contribute to ‘This is Engineering’ day by describing what I do on a typical working day as an engineer. 

Last Wednesday was like many other working days during the pandemic.  I got up about 7am went downstairs for breakfast in our kitchen and then climbed back upstairs to my home-office in the attic of our house in Liverpool [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau’ on April 8th, 2020].  I am lucky in that my home-office is quite separate from the living space in our house and it has a great view over the rooftops.  I arrived there at about 7.45am, opened my laptop, deleted the junk email, and dealt with the emails that were urgent, interesting or could be replied to quickly.  At around 8am, I closed my email and settled down to write the first draft of a proposal for funding to support our research on digital twins [see ‘Tacit hurdle to digital twins’ on August 26th, 2020].  I had organised a meeting earlier in the week with a group of collaborators and now I had the task of converting the ideas from our discussion into a coherent programme of research.  Ninety caffeine-fuelled minutes later, I had to stop for a Google Meet call with a collaborator at Airbus in Toulouse during which we agreed the wording on a statement about the impact our recent research efforts.  At 10am I joined a Skype call for a progress review with a PhD student on our dual PhD programme with National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, so we were joined by his supervisor in Taiwan where it was 6pm [see ‘Citizens of the World’ on November 27th, 2019].  The PhD student presented some very interesting results on evaluating the waviness of fibres in carbon-fibre composite materials using ultrasound measurements which he had performed in our laboratory in Liverpool.  Despite the local lockdown in Liverpool due to the pandemic, research laboratories on our campus are open and operating at reduced occupancy to allow social distancing.

After the PhD progress meeting, I had a catch-up session with my personal assistant to discuss my schedule for the next couple of weeks before joining a MS-Teams meeting with a couple of colleagues to discuss the implications of our current work on computational modelling and possible future directions.  The remaining hour up to my lunch break was occupied by a conference call with a university in India with whom we are exploring a potential partnership.  I participated in my capacity as Dean of the School of Engineering and joined about twenty colleagues from both institutions discussing possible areas of collaboration in both research and teaching.  Then it was back downstairs for a half-hour lunch break in the kitchen. 

Following lunch, I continued in my role as Dean with a half-hour meeting with Early Career Academics in the School of Engineering followed by internal interviews for the directorship of one of our postgraduate research programmes.  At 3.30pm, I was able to switch back to being a researcher and meet with a collaborator to discuss the prospects for extending our work on tracking synthetic nanoparticles into monitoring the motion of biological entities such as viruses and bacteria [see ‘Modelling from the cell through the individual to the host population’ on May 5th 2020].  Finally, as usual, I spent the last two to three hours of my working day replying to emails, following up on the day’s meetings and preparing for the following day.  One email was a request for help from one of my PhD students working in the laboratory who needed a piece of equipment that had been stored in my office for safekeeping.  So, I made the ten-minute walk to campus to get it for her which gave me the opportunity to talk face-to-face with one of the post-doctoral researchers in my group who is working on the DIMES project [see ‘Condition-monitoring using infra imaging‘ on June 17th, 2020].  After dinner, my wife and I walked down to the Albert Dock and along the river front to Princes Dock and back up to our house.

So that was my Engineering Day last Wednesday!

 

Logos of Clean Sky 2 and EUThe DIMES project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 820951.  The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.