The two of us: Mario Fernando and Nelly Liyanagamage

Behind every great PhD candidate is a dedicated supervisor (or two)

PhD candidate Nelly Liyanagamage is investigating how Machiavellians think and act in leadership positions. Her supervisor is Professor Mario Fernando from the Faculty of Business and Law, and the Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Management at UOW.

Meet the candidate

Nelly Liyanagamage

Can you give a description of the topic or question you are investigating?

My research investigates how Machiavellian leadership processes are enacted in business organisations. Machiavellians are characterised as cynical, controlling, manipulative people with no regard for others in their journey to achieve success or self-serving outcomes. I am trying to examine how Machiavellians think and act in leadership positions. And I ask if Machiavellians are always ‘dark’, negative, and immoral or can they be prosocial and positive?

How did you select your research topic? Where does your interest in this field come from?

Initially Mario and I discussed several topics of interest. One of them was Donald Trump as the leader of the United States of America. I became fascinated by his hard-line immigration policy that led to the United States-Mexico barrier, commonly known as “The Wall”. I read newspapers, journal articles and books to understand his thought process. Who is Donald Trump? And why was he the way he is? That’s when I came across, Trump: Art of the Deal, written by and about Donald Trump. He wrote “[they] painted me as a vicious, greedy, Machiavellian billionaire, intent only on serving my selfish ends at everyone else’s expense”. That was my first introduction to the term Machiavellian. The more empirical literature I read on Machiavellianism as a personality trait and as a dark leadership style, the more I began to question its position in today’s corporate and political landscape. Some say that Donald Trump is a Machiavellian, but so many people voted for him and continues to support him. Why? Is a person always a Machiavellian or can they be prosocial? These questions soon became the foundation of my PhD.

How did you find your supervisor?

In 2017, I spent most of my free time emailing research proposals to potential PhD supervisors. Some academics wrote back but most didn’t. Regardless of many rejections or the lack of it, I was not ready to give up on my research journey even before it began. In late 2017, several days after my email to Mario, I received a call to talk about my research interests. Mario was very impressed with my passion and dedication towards research. Honestly, I feel like it was pure luck finding a supervisor who is interested in similar areas of research as myself.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Greed and power at the expense of others is normalised in many modern business and political landscapes. My research explores this infusion of dark personalities into decision-making in businesses and the impact of this on followers and stakeholders. My belief is that to combat dark leadership, it is important to understand how those personalities are triggered and function in real organisational settings. Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” I hope with this research, I can understand dark leadership from a greater depth to support those who are unfortunately affected by it and ones who are blinded by the greed, control, and power.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

Postgraduate studies, especially a PhD can be daunting. This journey can be even more challenging for an international student away from their family. My advice to potential postgraduate candidates is to not compare yourself to others, as your journey will be different to others. Take time to enjoy life and focus on things that brings you joy. Although a PhD will play an important and significant role in your life, your life should not only revolve around your PhD. Having other avenues that brings you joy will keep your life balanced, and your mind open to new and interesting ideas—surprisingly, this might assist you in your research journey.

Meet the supervisor

Can you explain your area of expertise?

I research on organizational issues relating to leadership, ethics and human resources. My current research interests include artificial intelligence and ethics, responsible leadership and identity.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

I come from a family of lawyers. I studied law and followed my family footsteps into practice but to my father's dismay, found my heart wasn't in it. I instead turned to the human resources profession where I thought I found my calling. At the age of 32, I had worked my way up to becoming a senior executive and member of the board of directors of one of Sri Lanka’s largest corporations. After more than 10 years managing human resources at the highest level, I wasn't happy and wanted to leave the corporate sector. This paradox of how a happily married senior executive having two lovely children and a lucrative corporate career wanting to throw it all away really was puzzling to my family. It motivated me to move to academia and study this problem through my PhD. It was about my life journey and the associated philosophical questions of purpose of life.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

Passion, enthusiasm, and a great work ethic to examine the why of a research topic (rather than the what). If the candidate has these, I believe other skills can be developed. A great PhD candidate should be able to become an expert on their research topic at the end of their PhD journey and in a position to provide advice to supervisors.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

At the start of their journey, I try to share my PhD journey and emphasise how I enjoyed the process of completing the PhD more than the outcome. I also focus on the challenges of a PhD. Over time, candidates would want help with certain aspects more than others. Some candidates would be more goal driven but would require emotional support to manage the challenges of the PhD journey. Others would require help with goal setting, and I would help with meeting smaller, incremental goals. Also the stage of their PhD can determine what aspects need more attention. At the start, supervision meetings can be more regular and path-shaping. Towards the end, I tend to give more space for my candidates to blossom—to develop their ideas and critical thinking and almost “bring home” their thesis.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

I think their HDR supervision track record, publications in topic area, and the expectations of the supervisor are some key aspects that should be considered. It is always a good idea to talk to a range of supervisors before making the decision.

To learn more about Professor Mario Fernando take a look at his Scholars Profile 

To get in touch with Nelly Liyanagamage 

To learn more about the Faculty of Business and Law

To learn more about Graduate Research