(Academic) Leadership ... in "13 Days"

Reflections on academic leadership ...

In Dec 2017, I had just been appointed Head of the School and asked a wise colleague for guidance on meeting the challenges of the role. Knowing that I am a film buff, she gave me a copy of a movie called "Thirteen Days" (2001) together with a brief note highlighting some key leadership behaviours that she felt were important to learn. At the time, I noted the key points she had written but never actually got around to watching the movie - mainly because it was on a DVD and we no longer had a player in the house!  I completed my tenure in the role, with some successes but also faced several challenging situations.  My colleague's advice was useful when faced with particular challenges, but I also found a need to adapt some aspects of the guidance to fit my personality and style.

Six years later, as we approach the end of 2023, I noticed that "Thirteen Days" was available on one of the streaming services we subscribe to and finally managed to watch it. The film is a dramatisation of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, depicted from the perspective of the US administration of President John F. Kennedy. The accuracy of some aspects of the film is questionable, particularly the role of Ken O'Donnell as a principal advisor to President Kennedy in shaping the events of the crisis (Howe, 2001). However, the artistic license taken by the filmmakers in these aspects does not detract from the key messages of the film regarding leadership and decision-making. Watching it reminded me of the key lessons that my colleague highlighted to me, and that I noted as being relevant to many organisational contexts, including academia. The film prompted me to reflect on my colleague's guidance and I thought of writing this blog post to help organise my thoughts and share them with others who may be interested:

  1. You don't always need to decide now: there are extremely few situations where a decision is truly as urgent as those around you may insist it is. Therefore, it is often best to take more time and gather more information before deciding on a course of action, particularly if the stakes associated with some choices are high. (In the film, many parties try to push President Kennedy into making a decision to go to war immediately, but he consistently bides for time.)
  2. Understand others' perspectives: taking time to understand the perspectives of others is always helpful. This doesn't mean that you need to agree with them, but it does help you make better informed decisions with consideration of the impacts they will have. Developing empathy for others’ positions can also help. (In the film, a key challenge is the difficulty for the US and Soviet sides to understand what the other might be thinking.)
  3. Communicate clearly: many challenging situations arise due to a lack of clear communication and people making assumptions to compensate for this. Therefore, making  information explicit and ensuring clear communication is critical. Where misunderstandings arise, steps should be taken to resolve them as soon as possible. As part of clear communication, gather information from multiple perspectives and triangulate. (In the film, this is a recurring theme that is particularly highlighted when officials are trying to interpret the information being relayed from naval ships in the Atlantic.)
  4. Trust your team: you can't do everything yourself, so it is essential to trust your team to get on with the tasks that have been agreed upon. Acknowledge and show appreciation when these tasks are completed satisfactorily, and also discuss and resolve issues when expectations are not met. (In the film, President Kennedy delegates key tasks like negotiating with the Soviet Ambassador to his brother Robert Kennedy. Similarly, he has to trust his UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson to communicate his message to the world.)
  5. Get everyone's input: particularly when the stakes are high, it is important to ensure that everyone gets to have their say and declare their preferred decision. This is related to the point about communicating clearly but is also important for helping develop a collective understanding and responsibility for the decisions made. (In the film, President Kennedy uses this technique to help make everyone's perspectives clear and build a sense of shared responsibility.)
  6. Have a goal, and focus on the next action: knowing where you are heading is important, but to make progress you need to take the next step. Therefore, everyone needs to identify their next actions towards achieving the goal. (In the film, it is clear that the overall goal is to avoid a nuclear war, but this is only achieved by following through on specific actions at each stage.)
  7. You are in charge: ultimately, you need to make the decisions and take responsibility for them, but following the points above will help manage the risks. You also need to learn from the outcomes and adapt future decisions as appropriate. (In the film, in places the crisis becomes worse when others try to make decisions on behalf of the president.)
I am not suggesting that every situation faced by teams in academia is analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis (although sometimes it can feel that way!) However, this extreme example highlights the impacts of different types of leadership behaviour and how their application can be even more effective in the more mundane, day-to-day experience of our context. With the benefit of experience, I can also see that these behaviours have applicability at every career stage in academia, suitably adapted to the particular context. For example, a PhD student is the leader of their research project and a lecturer is the leader of their module. The behaviours outlined above can be applied to achieve success in each of these endeavours. (Addendum) Their effectiveness can be further enhanced by combining them with a quality that is not made explicit in the film, but nonetheless is important - kindness. None of the behaviours above require one to be harsh to people or disrespectful of them. Indeed by practicing them with empathy and kindness, one can be a better leader.  

Why is leadership on my mind as this year draws to a close? Probably because I am taking on the role of Associate Dean and Director of STEM Research at The Open University in 2024. Hopefully, the recollection and reflection on these leadership behaviours will help me ensure that we continue to deliver high-quality, innovative, open, and inclusive research over the years ahead.


Title Image:
Photograph of laptop screen showing the movie poster for "Thirteen Days" on the IMDb website. 
Photograph taken by Arosha K. Bandara


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