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7 Questions on Leadership with Elena Olson

Name: Elena Olson

Title: Research Assistant/Graduate Student

Organisation: UW-Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences

Having originated from Russia, I undertook the transformative journey of relocating to the United States at 15. The experience of any immigrant, although inherently distinctive, entails navigating a challenging path. I am on the verge of completing a doctoral program in Animal and Meat Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

My trajectory has been fueled by an unwavering passion for research, driven by the profound desire to contribute something of lasting value to humanity. As I near the culmination of my academic endeavors, I am committed to leaving a meaningful and enduring impact through my work.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Elena's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Being a leader requires courage, especially in my role as a research scientist. I inspire others to take risks with me, navigate the ups and downs of experiments, and trust them to work with integrity. In science, we emphasize the "re" in "research" for a reason – it's about re-thinking, re-structuring, and re-designing.

Acknowledging success involves expressing gratitude to those who contributed while facing failure means taking responsibility without blaming others. In essence, leadership in science demands constant refinement, resilience, and accountability.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I don't subscribe to the notion that mere placement in an authoritative role equates to leadership. True leadership goes beyond authority. Personally, I consider myself a student of leadership, continuously honing my skills and cultivating a mindset inspired by genuine leaders.

Influential figures like Simon Sinek, Brian Tracy, and Jordan Peterson serve as my mentors, guiding me on the path of acquiring and applying the principles that define authentic leadership.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I’ve always been an early riser – I start my day at 4 am for an hour of swimming to clear my mind. I reserve one day a week for meetings to minimize disruptions to my work. When faced with a heavy workload, I prioritize tasks and allocate time accordingly, helping me to stay focused and multitask efficiently. I aim to be in bed around 8 pm on weekdays. A crucial part of my routine is avoiding my phone in the morning and before bedtime.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

Trust is not established solely by offering help; it grows when we are open to asking for help. True trust involves vulnerability. It is a shared belief that leaders are dedicated, compassionate, and capable, prioritizing what is best for everyone involved.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

“The Gene: An Intimate History" by Siddhartha Mukherjee delves into the stories of two formidable historical leaders who passionately pursued the seemingly impossible through radical scientific methods. While not explicitly about leadership, the book underscores how leadership transcends individual boundaries and emerges across nationalities.

The realization that leading with fear differs significantly from facing fear is a key takeaway. Confronting fear is an essential step in effective leadership, whether at an individual or national level, catalyzing the journey to greatness. In the realm of science, the importance of crafting a compelling narrative for global resonance becomes apparent.

A scientist should embrace the inevitability of mistakes, recognizing them as part of the process. On the other hand, a leader must uphold unwavering honesty with followers, even if it means not always being liked but, crucially, being trusted.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Holding people responsible for their actions and decisions is essential to foster a culture of accountability. Equally important is the ability to initiate and accept challenging feedback. This two-way street ensures continuous improvement and development within a team or organization.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

Leadership transcends specific contexts; a genuine leader can inspire across space and time. I never considered myself a leader until I tuned into conversations led by mentors. Leadership operates like an enzyme, acting as a catalyst rather than the primary player, jumpstarting processes that propel the team to success. There's no distinction between big and small leaders – a mother sets an example, a friend catalyzes by delivering hard truths, and a president instills hope in a nation.

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