Why starting by acknowledging your limitations is the best approach to leading a think tank

10 March 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

By the time this piece is published, I will have left the Centre for Innovative Policy and Governance (CIPG) in Indonesia – a think tank I have directed since 2016. Given that I only became part of the OTT Fellowship Programme in 2017, it feels like a bit of a strange time to leave.

And yet, at the same time, the timing is perfect because the skills and insights I took away from the experience are proving useful in helping me prepare for the next phase of my career. I am about to start my PhD, having been involved in Indonesia’s think tank sector for the last five years.

There are two things in particular that the fellowship programme confirmed for me. The first is that think tanks need to invest in a constant process of organisational development. This involves internal capacity building, reflecting upon organisational goals, and working to improve the general working environment. The second is more personal and has to do with overcoming my own perceived limitations.

When I first took up my position at CIPG, I was well aware of my tendency to reflect too much and too critically on my own work. In fact, overcoming my self-consciousness became a key goal of mine. I realised quickly that the volume of work I had to get through meant I had to adopt a new way of working. To focus on getting things done, rather than overthinking every task.

The Fellowship Programme reminded me of the importance of analysing my own approach to learning and to see my development as a leader as an iterative process. The different topics and courses also helped me to look at organisational challenges through a range of lenses, using fresh approaches such as Design Thinking or Theory U.

Below are my top three reflection from the OTT Fellowship Programme:

Can researchers do marketing?

Promoting my organisation – or ‘selling it’ to put it more bluntly – was probably what I found toughest and most demanding in my role as executive director. It was also the biggest role reversal I have ever experienced. I remember doing promotion work back when I was still a research fellow. At workshops and other events, it felt very like ‘light work’ to promote CIPG and its projects. Exchanging business cards was easy. I did it without hesitations or thinking too much about its consequences.

This changed when I became a senior manager. You are invited to higher-level meetings and conferences with bigger, more demanding expectations. The process of networking and promoting – something that felt natural before – suddenly comes with an added amount of pressure. Instead of exchanging business cards because of mutual interest, you start to do it for long-term strategic reasons. Marketing becomes something you need to do, rather than want to do. What is more, it is a much bigger part of your day-to-day role. This becomes challenging when networking is not your strongest suit.

Can introverts lead?

People automatically expect directors to be outgoing and lively. The kind of people who can easily hold the attention of a group from the moment they start speaking. But that is not the only approach to leadership. I do not mind admitting that I will never be such a person. Though I have developed my skills as an extrovert, psychometric tests would put me firmly in the introvert camp. My strengths lie in reacting and responding to what other people have to say.

Can you grow an organisation by not asserting authority?

When leading a think tank, you often have to aim high, even if you are critical of the quality of your projects or the capacity of your personnel. But this raises an important question: should you invest in growing the different parts of your organisation (staff, systems, etc.) or take things into your hands and try to do it yourself? This is probably the ultimate test that any leader faces, especially those working in the knowledge sector.

The Fellowship Programme reminded me that this is not an ‘either/or’ sort of question. You need to analyse yourself in order to analyse the work of your organisation. For example, by determining how comfortable you are with delegation and whether your need to control things is actually necessary. This requires a certain amount of reflection of how much you are willing to trust your team. It is only by going through this sort of self-analysis that you can abandon the illusion that leading is a lonely job.