There’s a well-used trope in sitcoms, in which the protagonist manages to arrange an evening where they go on two dates at the same time! Hilarity and humiliation always ensue. Well, that was basically me last Friday. I had been asked by two sets of conference organisers if I’d give a Keynote talk. It’s always very flattering to be asked, and I am very supportive of the academics who were working on both events, so I agreed. Besides, I thought, there’s six-day window for these conferences, it’ll be a busy week but they’ll never both be on the same day… Anyway, you can see where this is going…

One paper was for the 9th International Bone Diagenesis conference in Evora, Portugal. They had a brilliant programme of speakers and posters, and I was talking about the challenges and opportunities faced when taking research from the forensic context and applying it to the archaeological one, and vice versa. I knew it’d be a suitably nerdy audience so I tried to draw together a number of different papers (and our own research, obvs) to make the points. The main conclusion was that it was possible, but only with due care. It was a lot of fun. The other paper was for the Rescue, Rights and Dignity of the Dead conference organised by the Association of Forensic Odontology for Human Rights (AFOHR) and I decided to do something a bit different. I’ve spoken at a lot of conferences about my subject over the years, but I find myself in a more reflective mood of late – I think because I have been fortunate to be appointed to a number of significant leadership roles recently. Anyway, I went with the title Lessons learned through 20 years of forensic anthropology practice, research and teaching. It’s the sort of title that you think is a good idea 2 months before you actually have to write it. I am still surprised that I’ve been working in the field for 20 years and severely alarmed that many of our new students were born after I had graduated. I mean, come on.

I structured the talk around the three key themes of practice, research and teaching and touched upon some of the considerations that I felt were important but as I was trying to pull together the conclusions, I found that the main points that I kept coming back to had nothing to do with forensic anthropology at all (quite the power move considering this was a talk specifically about forensic anthropology…). The points were actually broader and thankfully the panel saw how they were applicable to all forensic disciplines.

So here they are, five keys takeaways that I’ve learned following 20 years of working in forensic anthropology and higher education.

1. Change will occur [in HE] whether we want it to or not –  Freeman A. Hrabowski III

I’ve taken this from Hrabowski’s book The Empowered University in which he explores the journey to success through cultural and institutional change. The importance of this point is that change will happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. You certainly can’t stop it. But you can be a part of it, guide it and even instigate it. I’ve always believed that if something can be done better, then we should try to make it so. After all, why wouldn’t we? Why would be leave something in a less than ideal state? I’ve realised over the years that although I am very comfortable with change and uncertainty, because it’s exciting and I trust my instincts to navigate through it, not everyone I work with is. So we can’t just charge on willy-nilly but at the same time I’ve always felt that one shouldn’t wait for things to happen to you and that it’s best to get ahead of change and make it work for you. In the UK, the discipline of forensic anthropology has changed significantly in the last 20 years particularly as it has embraced a more nuanced culturally-aware perspective. I’m excited to see how the up-and-coming anthros are going to mould the subject further. Likewise the HE sector that I joined in Dundee back in 2004 looks nothing like the one I work in now. I’ve never felt it terribly useful to wish for things to go back to how they were and focusing on the past in that way stops you addressing the change that you’re in the middle of. Ironic for someone trained in archaeology.

2. You must be cognizant of the space that you occupy – John Amaechi OBE

This is the premise of the excellent book, The Promises of Giants, which is both funny and thought-provoking. This doesn’t refer to physical space (which is just as well as I’m still trying to lose a little lockdown weight), but rather that we all make an impact on others through our words and deeds. We need to be aware of this, as even the smallest of actions can have significant effect on others – whether in the classroom, in the corridors or online. We can use this potential to impact others in a really positive way, such as through mentoring, peer support and so on. We’re all active agents and must remember that we have the power to influence. We just need to be mindful about how we go about it.

3. There is nothing more interesting than people.

I study people. Albeit dead people. But everything about them is fascinating. The same is true for the living, I guess. There isn’t a problem that people can’t solve. Or cause, but lets focus on the positive.

4. Know what you’re good at. Know what you’re bad at. Do more of what you’re good at.

I was a panelist at a forensic conference a few years ago, and I was asked what the secret to success is. “Be a white male” didn’t seem inspirational enough, so I went with this, and although it seems a bit glib, the fundamentals are true. Be honest with yourself. Reflect upon what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. You can borrow my children if you are unsure because they are fucking brutal. Loads of leadership books have emphasised this, so I’m not saying anything new or ground-breaking. I know what I’m good at (although others may disagree…) and I know what I’m bad at. With the latter I work to improve, but also I make sure I work with people who are strong in these areas. When I was just a humble Prof, I built a research team that was much like me – worked fast, embraced challenge and risk, and had a positive outlook. If I didn’t gel with someone, I didn’t need to work with them. But as I moved into senior leadership, I realised that being surrounded by people who worked and thought like me meant that I was just getting the same sort of input that I could provide. Ideas need to be challenged and the complex multifaceted problems that we face require a variety of perspectives and life experiences to solve.

5. Leave things better than you found them – Albert Head

Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that I’ve had leadership thrust upon me, because I have literally applied for every one of the leadership positions that I’ve had. But I’m also not interested in leading for the sake of it. I’ve only applied for a post if I’ve felt that I can add value to it which invariably means making changes and laying out a strategy to success (however that may be defined). But throughout my career, I’ve always tried to leave things in a better state for the next cohort. And that was the key lesson that my grandfather taught me.


Nothing in my last slide was particularly earth shattering. But for me, it has been interesting to reflect recently on how I’ve ended up where I am and surrounded by the people I am. If nothing else, they give a sense of my own priorities when I undertake such roles, and that’s key to authentic leadership. It all seemed to go down well at the conference – but to be fair, they may have just been polite.

[As an addendum, my wife has just pointed out that the real reason for my success is because I have married so well. So I guess you can forget the above…]


I'm a Professor of Applied Biological Anthropology at Teesside University.