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Elements of Great Scientific Leadership

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

When I was speaking about leadership virtues to a group of junior researchers at a leading pharma company, audience members raised examples of eminent scientists who were abusive, dishonest, manipulative or simply absent from the laboratory. How did these people get into positions of leadership and get their labs to do world class research?

The answer is fairly simple. When it comes to promotions in academia, what goes on in the lab stays in the lab as long as strong papers are published and grant money keeps rolling in. Even in corporate labs, evaluations are primarily based on lab performance against goals. If the lab is successful but the head is a dictator, that bad behavior can be overlooked if it is noticed at all.

Alice Sapienza’s book, Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research, offers a glimpse of what good scientific leadership really looks like. She asked 147 experienced scientists, most of whom were in the life sciences and half of whom were in industry, how they would describe the best scientific leaders they had worked with. Interestingly, only about 15% cited the leader’s technical prowess as an important characteristic. Good communication, management and organizational skills topped the list. Being a good role model, mentor, or coach took second place as important characteristics possessed by strong scientific leaders they have known.

Here are some more characteristics of a strong scientific leader, based both on my client experience and the results of Sapienza’s poll: excellent listening skills, practiced with all lab members at all levels; a willingness to admit mistakes; appreciation of social, ethnic, and gender differences and how they contribute to a wider view of the scientific enterprise; an intuitive knowledge about how much independence each researcher requires and for how long; and the ability to handle conflict decisively but tactfully.

In other words, good scientific leadership is like good leadership in business and politics. Provide vision in an understandable way, supervise flexibly, ensure that morale is good, practice what you preach, etc. But lab heads who strive to practice these virtues often stumble when their lab members aren’t following the vision or are just being unproductive. How do you hold people accountable to hard metrics without treating unproductive workers as though they are faulty machines? How do you tell them their work is unacceptable without unnecessarily hurting their feelings or embarrassing them?

In brief, you need first to be sure that you can separate the projects from the people, seeing the steps to completion in a purely objective way. Then you learn to criticize the work without criticizing the person. This is not an easy task. I’ll introduce you to a few successful strategies in an upcoming post.