William Ronco, Ph.D. Biotech Leadership Institute

Four common misperceptions.

Science Leadership: Four Initial Images

When we say, “science leadership,” many scientists tell us they picture:

  • A presentation. Decked out, Steve Jobs-like, in black polo shirt and slacks, the leader addresses an attentive crowd. Sincere, smart, humble yet authoritative, he/she effortlessly makes several amazing points, rattling off strings of intelligent ideas. (Yes, this looks and sounds like a “Ted Talk.”)
  • A powerful influencer. In informal conversations, a leader who, with little effort, converts stubborn dissenters into committed believers. With the skill of a licensed hypnotist, this leader persuades others to listen, understand, and take rapid action with the slightest, most subtle hints and suggestions.
  • A brilliant analyst. This science leader is a theoretical, technical genius years—often decades—ahead of his/her time. We don’t always understand it, but we recognize and deeply respect his/her sheer brainpower.
  • Worshipful followers. Whether in large audiences or individual conversations, employees worship the leader’s every word. They live to serve, hoping beyond all else for more such encounters in their future.

What Leaders Really Do: Four Realities

There’s some validity in all four of these images. However, the images also omit some important realities and, by omitting them, keep us from improving what science leadership can accomplish. We propose enlarging the four images in the following ways.

1. We lead in presentations, but more in conversations.

It’s understandable that we initially focus on presentations when we think about science leadership. Presentations can be dramatic and memorable. They have strong potential to announce, describe, explain, exhort, communicate, motivate, and energize. They provide an efficient forum to connect with large numbers of people. And even the most introverted leader can learn to present skillfully with just a bit of effort.

But presentations can yield only limited leadership results. Audiences are passive and impacts tend to be fleeting and shallow. Presentations can do an excellent job with one-way communications, directing a stream of information at audiences. However, presentations fall far short when it comes to fully engaging participants, eliciting deep commitment, and collaborating to tap into participants and develop ideas.

Though less glamorous than presentations, conversations provide the venue for much of the real work of science leadership. Science leaders describe what they accomplished in presentations, but it’s in conversations where they develop they test, nurture, defend, and develop the ideas in the first place. Conversations are where leaders give and take feedback and criticism, connect their own thinking with others, and elicit involvement at the deepest levels.

2. We lead with influencing skills, but more in relationships.

Was the leader able to persuade others to pay attention to a new idea? Could the leader get senior executives to change their minds and invest in a groundbreaking idea? Did the leader negotiate successfully enough to get the resources needed for the new project? It’s understandable that science leadership initially focuses on influencing skills; they obviously contribute to getting things done.

Focusing on skills of any kind emphasizes short-term, single-handed wins. Science leadership is not like selling used cars, where the customer temporarily dazzled by the salesperson drives away. In science, the people who were influenced come to the work the next day and the next, and they’re usually more than smart enough to understand— and often resent—being “influenced.”

Communications skills that emphasize influencing can easily lead to a workplace that is aggressive, fragmented, and suspicious, a workplace not at all conducive to the nurturing and development of new ideas.

3. We lead with ideas, but even more with integrity.

Of course science leadership focuses on ideas; they are the reason most of us are drawn to this kind of work in the first place and the reason that keeps us here in the long term. It’s difficult if not impossible for science leaders to possess excellent command and ability to play with the most significant and recent ideas in their field.

But science leadership means more than just having ideas—it also means having integrity. We generally work hard to maintain high ethical standards but we could do better. Every time someone develops a product that, though brilliant, damages our culture, environment or social fabric, we appropriately lose credibility and respect. Our love of theory and concept too often fogs our ability to maintain the highest ethical standards and the build the healthiest organization cultures.

4. In science, we are all leaders.

In science we have skeptics, critics, analytical thinkers, free thinkers, challengers, and naysayers. We are the people who display the “Question Authority” bumper sticker. In science, we have few followers, worshipful or otherwise. Our flat, decentralized organization structures reinforce our temperament, redistributing our senior leaders’ formal authority and power among our disgruntled masses.

Recognizing more clearly that in science, we are all leaders will help “followers” take more initiative and develop more skills to do the organizational work we all need to do to bring our ideas to life. Recognizing that we are all leaders will also help our formal leaders work more effectively with us all as the intellectual and human peers that we are.

From Images to Actions

Conversations, Relationships, Integrity, We are all leaders. More abstract than the strategies and skills this blog usually addresses, these images are even more important to put into practice. Strategies and skills provide bricks and mortar for improving science leadership, but these pictures provide foundations.

We can put the images into practice in three places:

  • Visibility and recognition. Organizational and professional association recognition for effective conversations, productive relationships, integrity, and collaboration will improve the performance of our organizations and advance our own thinking.
  • Leadership training. Adding work on better understanding and implementing the four images will increase the effectiveness of our training and result in leaders that contribute more to their organizations and to scientific development overall.
  • Our own development and learning. We work in organizations but understand woefully little about how leadership and organizations work. Increasing our in-depth understanding of these insights is essential if we’re serious about advancing scientific development overall.

Director of the Biotech Leadership Institute William Ronco, Ph.D. ([email protected]), provides training and consulting to improve leadership, communications and team performance in science organizations.

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