This piece first appeared in The Huffington Post on September 6, 2017
I have had the opportunity to interact with many scientists and science researchers over the years. These are individuals who have spent their lives in academia or research institutes. Upon speaking to them, certain themes emerge again and again—curiosity, eye for detail, dedication, perseverance, deep subject matter expertise, cutting-edge research, applications, funding, problem solving, invention, innovation and impact. One thing that I never get to hear from them though is the importance of leadership in their work.
The myth prevails among many scientists that “leadership” is a soft skill that has little bearing in the world of science and laboratories.
What also stands out is that these scientists have attended myriad conferences, presented at various forums, written papers, authored books and gathered patents—but they have never undergone any form of leadership education. Some of them have taken up administrative responsibilities, yet have never attended any management development programmes. It’s a pity because when you engage with them about the challenges they face, it becomes clear that knowing the intricacies of leadership would have made them perform better and achieve more. Still, the myth prevails among many scientists that “leadership” is a soft skill that has little bearing in the world of science and laboratories. What’s sometimes also assumed is that whatever leadership skills are required, they can be learnt on the job.
Of course, there are forward looking scientists who understand the power of leadership and how it can impact their work. But these individuals are far and few. So what are three key reasons why scientists and science researchers need to think about leadership?
Here’s my take.
- Scientist need to influence
Whether it’s seeking grants or convincing diverse stakeholders of an idea or collaborating with industry or converting research findings into business or communicating ideas to the general public—scientists need to be able to influence others. Else, their ideas run the risk of mouldering in a Petri dish. To influence means to take along people or make them agree with your views. This is achieved by persuasion and inspiring commitment and not by exerting force.
To get people on board you need to understand their agenda and the approaches they want to adopt. This is where scientists need to develop political competence…
Like all other professions, this is probably one of the most important leadership skills required of scientists. Having the skill to influence others can make a big difference. There is so much scientists can pick up from the works of works of psychologists such as Dr Robert Cialdinior from management thinkers such as Samuel B Bacharach . For example, knowing their agendas is critical to influence people. To get people on board you need to understand their agenda and the approaches they want to adopt. This is where scientists need to develop political competence to scan the context and understand who is with them, who is not with them, what can be controlled, what can’t be controlled and how to create coalitions to move ahead with the proposed agenda. To develop such skills scientists need to either read or be taught about them. One cannot expect to acquire these skills without undergoing a formal leadership session.
However, there are and have been scientists who have been masters in the art of influence and how to communicate their ideas. I am going to talk about two individuals here. One is R A Mashelkar, the former director general of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research who is just not an excellent researcher but someone who leveraged the art of influence to take Indian scientific research to a new level.
The other scientist was Charles Darwin who took the help of four stalwarts of that time— geologist Charles Lyell, botanists Joseph Dalton and Asa Gray and finally zoologist Thomas Huxley—to spread his theory of “The Origin of Species”—A great example of scaling an idea by taking the help of top influencers.
- Scientists lead teams
Teams are an integral part of scientific pursuit. When a scientist invents or discovers something, it is typically an outcome of many people working behind the scenes.
A scientist trained in creating a shared vision or telling a compelling story would do a much better job than someone who has not developed the skills to do so.
The pursuit of science is a journey into the unknown where the goal is to discover things that were not known before. Here a scientist needs to create a compelling vision, make others believe in it and inspire them to undertake the journey towards achieving it. This is quite like a CEO who leads an organisation towards achieving a vision. A scientist trained in creating a shared vision or telling a compelling story would do a much better job than someone who has not developed the skills to do so.
Also, when there are teams, there are instances of dysfunctional behaviour. There are conflicts, issues around trust, commitment, cohesion, communication deficit, team engagement and so on. And formal training on how to manage teams and handle conflicts can make it easier for a scientist to handle such issues rather than let them affect the course of a project.
When scientists work on big ticket projects there is growing trend of putting together a multi-disciplinary team, some of whom could be beyond the confines of the laboratory and even be based in different continents. Such diverse teams are better at solving problems , they improve thinking and bring different perspectives to the table. However, a diverse team brings its own set of challenges. Not only do such teams have greater perceived conflict, they also cause larger discomfort among the team members. A scientist who has leadership skills can manage such teams very well.
- Scientists need to understand the impact of their behaviour
Scientists need to understand the impact of their behaviour on others. For example, a tenured scientist may block the opportunities of a bright young researcher because he is threatened by his intellectual depth. Sometimes a lead scientist or a principal investigator creates a toxic culture in a laboratory wherein junior scientists and researchers are bullied and intimidated. They yell, belittle, repeatedly change work guidelines, put unreasonable pressure and criticise. This further gets accentuated when the team members are conflict avoiding, unassertive and don’t want to get their impending Master’s or PhD theses to be impacted.
Emotional and social competence could help boost a scientist’s career considerably.
Many times the lead scientist /principal investigator may not even be aware of the deleterious impact of his/her behaviour. He or she could be a brilliant mind but has never undergone management training that could expose him/her to people skills. Scientists, like other professionals, can be trained to recognise their emotions, understand the impact of their behaviour on others and so on. They could regulate their emotions better and thus minimise workplace disruptions. Emotional and social competence could help boost a scientist’s career considerably.