Dr. Niamh Shaw is an Irish engineer, scientist and performer. She is passionate about igniting peoples’ curiosity and particularly interested in doing this by combining creativity with science topics. She presents the human story of science, creating theatre shows, public events and contributions to media with this focus. She has set herself a life’s mission to get to space, as artist and explorer. She hopes that by sharing the human story behind such a venture, it will help us better understand our place in the story of space, and the beauty of our planet Earth.
Recently voted one of Ireland’s leading science communicators and STEAM specialists (merging science, technology, engineering, arts and maths), her contribution to science and its application to Irish life was acknowledged by Uachtaráin na hÉireann, President Michael D. Higgins at his annual St Patricks Day reception in 2017 in Áras an Uachtaráin. She is artist in residence at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, Humanities co-chair at 2018 Space Studies Programme, and the Dublin point of contact for Ireland’s national Space week.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Yes, I think leadership can be taught, I think it is about being around somebody who is a natural leader. Begin to understand how easy making work together is when you are led by someone who really understands teamwork. I think the values behind good leadership are always to do with selflessness and good leaders always put themselves last, if you can discern those qualities in anyone in a position of authority around you I think they can really set good directives going forward about how you would lead even without it becoming a course or something. So I think surrounding yourself with good role models of leadership you naturally start to absorb the skills that they have and understand the benefits of them.
If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?
Run brainstorming exercises at the top of any new project, get everyone’s ideas down on a board so that we have a collective set of ideas and also that everybody understands together the prime objective of what we are doing going forward- I find that is a great place to start when I lead teams. Ideas come and go but the best ideas always rise to the top particularly when everybody feels that they have been heard. Always give people the room to develop and to try new things, give people ownership of their work and to take responsibility for it. A good leader is somebody that helps steer them in the development of their career but that they always feel that they are in charge of their own career.
What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?
I always try to keep myself out of my comfort zone. If I start to feel at all safe in my work environment I get a little bit concerned because I realise that I am not actually learning. I always try to surround myself with people who are a lot more talented than me and seek out people who know things that I am a pretty patchy on. For instance, at the moment I am trying to find a new residence in areas of technology that I have heard about but I don’t really have a full grasp on so I want to be around people who know what that is and to learn from them. I almost always try to surround myself with people who are younger than me, who are emerging in terms of communication. What are the general forms of communication today? It has shifted an awful lot since I was in my twenties so I feel a responsibility to keep on top of that so that we will always stay current and we will always communicate with people in the formats that they communicate in instead of trying to get people to communicate in the way I am used to. I want to reach out to them so it’s my responsibility to keep getting better at what I do by surrounding myself with very skilled people and facilitating their careers so that theirs continue to rise but I can stay current by being a part of theirs.
What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?
Elon Musk’s organisation, a lot of the way he runs his business would be very similar to some of the values I would aspire to have, he surrounds himself with people that are far more talented and skilled than he is and he is just a facilitator for these talented people. He is not at all intimidated by not being the expert in that field so he provides these people space and the ability to do what they do best. He has a macro ability then to pull all these experts together to realise things. What I like about that model is it keeps people motivated, they are all in charge of their own career and their own ability to create and troubleshoot and to innovate. They are being facilitated by somebody who is carrying the burden in terms of running the business, that allows them and gives them the freedom to be their very best selves. I think any organisation that nurtures talent is always the organisation I lean towards and try to do business with in the future because I know that we are on the same page and we are heading in the right direction. Also, organisations that have a strong social environmental conscience and do everything they can to contribute to a sustainable planet- they would also be organisations that I would really admire and respect.
If you could wind back the clock to when you were starting your career what advice would you give yourself?
I knew what I wanted to be and the fact that there was no actual course for being a part of the space industry shouldn’t have stopped me and I should have aimed higher, I was more than capable. Not to follow the crowd, which is what I did very early on in my career, thinking that because other people were doing something and I couldn’t find courses in what I wanted to do that that was a good enough reason to do what everybody else was doing. So to be more single-minded and to believe in myself more and know deep down my instincts were right. I knew what I should have been and what I wanted to be and to have put myself in the path of people who could have reinforced that for me, to have sought out role models, to have asked more questions, to have not been satisfied with just a simple yes, to ask why and not to respect people who on paper have experience, to actually find the people I respected myself for what experience they had. When I was young I had a tendency to toe the line and do what everybody else was doing and I think it was because I was avoiding trying to find the way towards the career that I really wanted, which was a career in space. If I just had more confidence then I think I would be much further on in that career than I am now.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
Find out what you are curious about it, it can be many different things, come at that curious subject from lots of different angles so books, podcasts, documentaries, fictional movies, workshops, training, people, interviews, ask questions, make contact. Being armed with as much information as possible about that subject, doing the thing that you absolutely love doing will make you a happier person and ultimately a better leader.