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What Does a Great Leader/Manager Look Like?

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

It’s hard to develop your leadership and management skills in science if you have never seen what a good leader looks like.  In my coaching with scientist clients who have worked under very accomplished PIs, I hear them talk about  leadership and management styles that are clearly dysfunctional and destructive.  It’s all too easy to imitate those styles if that’s all you have experienced and if you believe those styles helped account for the success of the PIs.  In fact, those styles may have been obstacles to greater success, and the PI might have succeeded despite, rather than because of, those styles.

The problem of identifying good leaders and managers in science is compounded by the fact that cultural stereotypes about leaders exist, thanks to movie and television depictions of despicable characters.  Leaders of companies are often portrayed as bad guys who are only out for themselves and are willing to exploit their employees whenever it pleases their selfish aims.  Recent press coverage of bank CEOs, which plays into this stereotype, only add to the confusion about what a leader, good or bad, looks like.

Fortunately, there are some excellent resources out there to help you understand great leadership and management in science.  Unlike some of the fluffy bestsellers in the business book section of your bookstore, these are based on actual studies of how good and bad leadership works in and out of the lab.

One of my favorites is a book by Alice M. Sapienza called Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research.  Sapienza works from extensive interviews with scientists about their experience with good and bad PIs.  I’ll summarize her findings in a subsequent blog post.  Graduate students in the sciences should be required to take a science management course, and this should be a required textbook.

If you haven’t read it, get the valuable free book produced by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the  Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty.  Finally, take a look at some of the books written by Kathy Barker, especially At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator.

I will continue to list good resources of scientific leadership and management on my Still Point Coaching and Consulting website.  Future blog posts will discuss the essential elements of great leadership and management in the lab and beyond.  Stay tuned.