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Leadership in Science

As scientists, we aren’t just researchers and educators; we are also leaders. Whether we are leading small teams, whole groups, or an entire experiment, it is worthwhile to consider what it means to be a leader. I’m sure we all would write down something different when asked “What does it mean to be a leader?”, but I’m also sure that we would all see the wisdom in what everyone else wrote. So, in that spirit, I’ve collected my thoughts about leadership in science.

So, what is a leader? I decided to go broad with my definition: a leader is someone who focuses the skills and efforts of a group of people toward a common goal. While this definition doesn’t explicitly give the power of decision-making to a leader, it certainly doesn’t preclude it. The standard “boss”, for example, falls easily into this definition. A boss leads by assigning tasks and keeping track of progress, using their power over their subordinates to get compliance. I’m sure there are people who would argue with me over this generalization, telling me that “good bosses (TM)” don’t wield power over their employees to enforce compliance. And I’ll admit that my choice of words certainly has a tad of a negative connotation. However, I’m not here to debate “good bosses” versus “bad bosses”; I’m just pointing out that a “boss” is a subtype of leader.

What I would rather focus on is another type of leader: a leader that doesn’t have power over their group. The kind of leader who can’t delegate tasks and demand compliance based on some sort of power dynamic. The kind of leader that other people follow by choice. We’ve all met people like this before. Maybe it was in school projects, or organizing community events, or within our social groups. These people lead by the virtues of their ideas and their social skills. These are the kinds of leaders that I want to look to while deciding what being a good leader means to me.

You’ll notice I changed the question. Before, the question was “What is a leader?”, but now, it’s “What is a good leader?”. Of course, you knew I was going to go there. It’s far more interesting to think about subjectively positive qualities than broad generalizations. The reason I want to look to people who lead without defined power dynamics is that, as scientists, we encounter far more groups without distinct power hierarchies than those with. Sure, you can think of the typical professor-grad student relationship as a case where there is an extreme power imbalance, but that’s hardly the predominant relationship in science. Far more often, we are interacting with peers and collaborators, over which we have no more sway than we can convince them to willingly give us. So, now that I’ve touched on why I want to answer this particular question, I should probably get around to answering it. What do I think makes a good leader?

First and foremost, even with explicit power, a good leader earns the respect and trust of the members of their team. Each member of the team should feel like the project is in good hands. The leadership should be seen as a positive influence on progress and results, not as something that needs to be overcome or dealt with (meetings that could have been emails, anyone?). Going a step further, team members should see their leader as a positive influence on their own work. If a project is like a puzzle, where each member is making individual pieces, perhaps a leader’s main job is to make sure the puzzle goes together. However, each piece should be no worse because of the leader’s involvement than if its creator were left alone.

Second, a leader should foster an environment where people can be productive, can learn, and can grow. This may seem obvious to some, and meaningless to others, but I think it’s important. People aren’t machines. We shouldn’t expect them to come onto a project ready to be maximally productive, requiring only maintenance to keep them going. People come onto a project and need to time to learn, to grow to fit the space they are filling. This expansion is why a person is better than a machine, by the way. A machine will never do more than it was built to do, but a person can adapt, fill voids, yield responsibilities to others, and generally become better at what they do as they do it. It is up to a leader to keep this in mind and support their team as each member grows into their roles.

Finally, a leader should create new leaders. What does this mean? A leader should create opportunities for other team members to assume leadership roles themselves. I would argue that being a good leader doesn’t just mean leading successful projects, but producing new good leaders as well. After all, in science, we don’t really finish with projects. As one winds down, answering whatever questions were answered, new projects spin off to answer new questions. A good leader will produce new leaders who can lead those new projects.

I didn’t expect to write this much when I sat down, but I’m happy with this. It’s important to really define what you’re striving for before you start considering how you will go about achieving it. But eventually, you need to make some plans. Here’s my thoughts on how I, personally, will go about achieving all those marks of being a good leader. This process is ongoing and needs to be adapted as I try new things, so consider this a perpetually work-in-progress:

1. I understand that, just because I’m in a leadership role, I don’t necessarily know more about each piece of the project than my team members. As such, I will take their advice and preferences seriously while trying to integrate them into the overarching course of the project.

2. I will maintain a light touch with individual work. This point is similar to the one above, but I broke it out because I think it bears special consideration. If someone is doing fine doing what they are doing, let them. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

3. I understand that my personal goals aren’t necessarily the same as the project goals. I should, of course, try to accomplish both, but while the leadership hat is on, the project goals come first.

4. I will help people where I can, and I will encourage others to do the same. Science is about the free exchange of ideas and collaboration, and that should be reflected in my leadership. Additionally, by giving people the opportunity to work together, I am also providing opportunities for them to break in their own leadership hats.

I think this list is a good place to start. Like I said above, it’s important to revisit these questions, so they can be updated with new experiences and new thoughts. But, for now, I think this provides a solid framework for moving forward.

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