Resilient Leadership in Action

By Duncan Reynolds and Sophie Spitters

As an academic researcher, you learn to become highly versatile. You develop methodological, organisational, critical thinking, and analytical skills to conduct research studies and develop new insights. You improve your writing and presentation skills to communicate your findings to different audiences. And you work on your creative and persuasive skills to attract support for your next research idea. However, for a career in academia, you also need to develop yourself as a leader – able to motivate, organise and support others to work towards a common goal. The Leadership in Action programme sets out to support leadership development in academia.

The ‘Leadership in Action’ programme helps researchers to develop their leadership skills. The programme offers early career researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds across eight UK universities the opportunity to practice their leadership skills and reflect on their leadership qualities. Duncan Reynolds and Sophie Spitters from the APOLLO social science group at Queen Mary’s Wolfson Institute for Population Health (WIPH) joined the 2023 Leadership in Action programme. Here is what they’ve learnt.

The Resilient Leadership Elements (RLETM)

The course was based around the Resilient Leadership Elements (RLETM). The idea behind these is that leaders don’t just attempt to foresee what will happen next, but they also react to a constantly changing environment. The RLEs are grouped in four categories: ‘Awareness’ (orange), ‘Clarity of Direction’ (green), ‘Leadership Presence’ (red), and ‘Resilient Decision Making’ (lilac). Before the course started, we completed self-assessments to identify our strengths and areas for development in terms on these core RLEs. We also nominated three others to fill in an assessment about us. 

During the course we discussed and reflected upon the results of our assessments with a ‘buddy’. Being able to think about leadership in terms of the RLEs really helped when it came to analysing and evaluating ourselves and our peers during the leadership exercises we were tasked with during this practice-led course.
“Being able to see how others saw me aligned sometimes with how I viewed myself, but sometimes they did not. My peers scored me far higher on ‘Clarity of Direction’ than I did myself and this gave me a lot to think about in terms of why that was!”

Copyright © 2020 RLE

Duncan’s lessons in leadership

One of things that attracted me to this course was that it was very practice-heavy, and that we would have the opportunity to lead an activity, as well as be a follower in many others. I learnt as much, if not more, as a follower as I did as a leader.

Don’t panic!

In the activity I had to lead, we were given 10 minutes to familiarise ourselves with the task at hand. I as leader was given a list of instructions that didn’t take more than 60 seconds to read. So, while my team members were reading their booklet, I spent most of my time planning how we as a team would tackle and complete the activitiy within the time we had. So far so good, or so I thought..! It turned out that I also had been sent the booklet, but due to a good old fashioned Zoom error, it had not come through to me. This initially threw me when I saw the private message from the course leader telling me I was supposed to have received and read the other file as well. My first thought was “panic” and “oh no, I’ve wasted 10 minutes of time, we’ll never complete the task now!” But I was happy I quickly overcame this, and remembered that I had planned the task as if I did not have the information. So, having it now was a bonus. In the debrief after the session my team told me that I’d faced this curveball well, which made me pleased that not only was I able to not panic myself, but I also did not panic those I was working with (and we successfully completed the task!).

Be aware of the influence you have on others

One of the key things which have stayed with me from the course, is the influence those around you can have on you. In one of the tasks in which I was a team member, I became very aware of how the leader’s attitude was impacting my own enthusiasm for the task. It became clear early on in the activity that none of us in the group had certain skills that would benefit the activity. This appeared to knock the motivation of the leader who began saying that because of this, we would not be able to complete the activity. At this same moment, I had been looking online to find a simple user-friendly program that could help us. However, when I heard the leaders comments my initial thought was “oh what’s the point? If they’ve given up maybe I should just coast the rest of this”. I am usually pretty good at being self-motivated and recognised this as an unusual thought for me. Realising this, I was able to recollect myself and put my best effort in for the remaining time, but it has stuck with me how much a leader’s attitude can impact that of the members of their team.

"How much do your values impact your decision-making?”
Resilient Leadership Elements

When we did our initial self-assessments, I scored comparatively low on how much I am driven by my personal values. When I had been faced with questions such as “how much do your values impact your decision making?” I had answered relatively neutrally, believing that I thought nothing much about them when making decisions. However, reflecting on the Leadership Presence and Awareness elements made me realise that my personal values are hugely important in the decisions I make. Care, humour, and knowledge are values which drive me forward, and it is great that I am now more aware of these.

Sophie’s lessons in leadership

One of the key components of the course was a series of group activities with the opportunity for each participant to step-up and lead a small group to achieve a specified task. I was a little sceptical at first about the benefits of the course with only one opportunity to lead an activity. However, I underestimated how the different elements of the ‘Leadership in Action’ course came together to bring about very useful and practical insights about my leadership style.

I often felt I had to be self-reliant as an academic researcher. Independent working is embedded in the structure and culture of academia, and people tend to be very busy. I also presumed that my preference to act as a team player excluded me from acting as a leader. During the course, however, I learnt how to harness and emphasise collaboration when stepping into a leadership role.
Asking for help

In my leadership activity, we had to work with a large amount of information in limited time. It felt stressful knowing that I was responsible for delivering an output without sufficient time to make sense of all the information on my own. Instead, I had to rely on the team to act as experts and advise me on different issues. Doing so, however, felt great. When asking team members to explore different issues and summarise key points, I felt very grateful, and excited to see everything come together through their efforts. And cherry on top, the team fed back that they very much enjoyed the activity under my leadership and felt they were given the space and support to contribute. The activity gave me the visceral experience that it’s okay to ask for help, especially when the request aligns to someone’s goals, strengths, and interests.


In the final course activity, we spent quite some time getting to know each other to understand what we have in common and what motivates us. Hearing people’s stories and seeing the common threads sparked my creativity and a vision for the activity flowed naturally from the conversation. However, this activity had no assigned leader, and I didn’t want to force my idea, my vision, onto the group. Over time, the vision crystallised, and we ended up with a great final output. The result was like I envisioned, but I’d felt frustrated during the activity, struggling to get people on board while not overstepping my role. In the end, the group reflected back that they’d seen me as the leader all along. This experience taught me that it’s important and beneficial for the team to be clear and assertive, and step-up into a leadership position in certain situations.


Output for one the course activities. Image from:

Resilient Leadership Elements

The course has lots of reflective elements to help you make sense of the practical course activities in the context of the Resilient Leadership Elements and your personal development. Through reflective discussions with my course buddy and through group discussions facilitated by our course coach, I have become more aware of my strengths, my areas for development, and style of leadership. I learnt that I can lead successfully amidst the team, in a collaborative fashion, being authentic to my values and personality. I also learnt that asking for help can be a reciprocal act. When you are aware of others and have an intention to serve their interests, a request for help can be a welcome invitation to engage in work that serves a common purpose or is mutually beneficial. I also learnt to be more assertive and more communicative about my ideas and strategic intent, to create a unifying purpose that people want to sign-up and commit to.

Take home

We will take the insights and lessons from the Leadership in Action course, and put them to use in the APOLLO Social Science team and our research projects. If you are interested in developing your leadership skills through practical, hands-on, and reflective learning you can check if the Leadership in Action course is delivered at your university, or you can find more information at Resilient Leaders Elements. 
“By being more communicative, reaching out to people more for their thoughts, advice, and support, I hope to create a bigger impact with my research."

"I hope that by being more in tune with what drives me, how I react when the unexpected happens, and by understanding my impact on others, my research will be able to progress and have a positive impact.

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