By Padmanabhan (Paddy) Eangoor
Some people are born to be leaders while some are trained to become leaders. Scientists, on the other hand, are born for science but trained to become better scientists. When we picture a leader, it would most likely not be a scientist. That may be because most of us think that these two tracks don’t connect well. Some of us wonder, “Can good scientists make good leaders?”
One quality of a leader is to be a visionary. Think about the life of a scientist—they constantly encounter tough scientific challenges and use their creativity to address them. Their ideas don’t always work, so they often fail before they finally succeed. It may take months or years to succeed, but scientists have the patience to persistently work on their vision to obtain the intended result. Scientists have experience sailing in uncharted waters, taking up tasks that no one has ever taken up, making this exploration their hobby and their livelihood. An article, ‘Leaders Must Now Think Like Scientists’, published in the Forbes magazine highlights the qualities of scientists that leaders should adopt to become better leaders. It may not be surprising now to see why good scientists can make good leaders.
When scientists lead, the impact of their research becomes multi-fold. Sometimes scientists work on massive projects, such as the human genome project, which need collaborations between many countries and hundreds of scientists. The success of such projects may not depend on science alone, but will additionally need scientist-leaders with ambition, vision, dedication and more importantly willingness to lead other scientists.
A leader can communicate their ideas with team members, collaborate with other teams, stay organized, handle crisis situations, address conflicts, manage time, show commitment, and deliver on promises. Most of these attributes are shared by scientists as well; the difference is that scientists use these skills in conducting their research instead of leading a traditional office-type team.
Can scientists make better leaders than non-scientists? Not necessarily. We have seen many great leaders in the past who were not scientists but excelled in leadership. Also, being a scientist doesn’t necessarily make an individual a great leader. However, there is a better chance for a scientist to become a great leader if they are passionate about leading.
On the flip side, an unprepared “scientist-leader” can have serious setbacks. Scientists spend so much time in perfecting their science for a better tomorrow that they can overlook their own behavioral skills. Good communication and social behavioral skills are more important for a leader than strategic planning and technical skills. Some other qualities that are required to make a “scientist-leader” successful are the willingness and confidence to lead and the ability to motivate their team. A scientist needs to work on these qualities to become a great leader.
Learning and practicing these skills can be a daunting task, but it can become easier if we follow the footsteps of great leaders. A popular quote is, “If you want to lead, you must first learn to follow.” Leadership has its own perks, like status or the money that comes with it, but a scientist may care less about these things and be happy to stay with their research. Instead, leadership should be seen as a service to the organization and society. Scientists can make this world a better place but when they take the initiative to lead this process can happen faster and be most impactful.