scientific leader

How to be an Excellent Scientific Leader

It’s often said that great leaders have a knack for bringing out the best in those that follow. In turn, followers enjoy the work they do and will take the initiative to soar far above and beyond what is asked of them. A less effective scientific leader may unknowingly squander potential that might have flourished under different circumstances.

What are some of the things that make an excellent scientific leader?

It’s a Team Effort. Always.

Wherever you land in the laboratory, your duties are fluid. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow, but no matter what, all hands are on deck when it comes to the research.

Too often groups structure themselves in ways that divide “us” from “them” (or team leaders/management vs. everyone else) instead of looking for ways to bring everyone together on a level playing field. It’s difficult to direct effectively from the sidelines just as much as it is difficult to encourage productivity by using techniques that are like a proverbial “iron glove”.

Rather, take an active approach to foster an environment where all can easily contribute.  You’ll find people are then more willing to ask the big, difficult questions, offer innovative solutions and put in 110+% to reach a goal.

Practice Makes Perfect in Becoming a Scientific Leader

It may be surprising to learn that some lead by saying, “go and do this task.” They give no other direction or expectation than a perfect end result. Add to that a scientist who is left to sink or swim on their own with a very limited edition of valuable samples!

As a teacher, a mentor, and a guide you can excel in helping others become more successful. Here’s where it boils down to foundational training. Whether you’re working with a newcomer to the lab or a colleague who has been around awhile, show them how the lab performs a given technique, encourage them to make notes in their own words, observe the first few tries to get them settled into the technique, then check in regularly to see their progress and answer any questions.

That way there are as many practice shots as needed to master a learning curve with expendable samples rather than taking a gamble with the most valuable ones. You’ve also taken the first initiative towards avoiding common laboratory pitfalls – one of which being the repeat of a year long experiment to generate another set of samples.

Time is Flexible

Organizations talk a lot about the importance of a happy “work/life balance”, but a scientific leader must partner with their colleagues to help them realize that balance. When planning every new project it’s common to write out a detailed protocol that sets the framework, explains step-by-step the technique, sample size and other particulars.

But, what may not be as common is soliciting significant input from the person you assign to run it. Among other details, what date(s) should the experiment be run?

Planning ahead is planning for success. An experiment can run 2 days or 21 days straight, and it’s up to the scientist to take ownership of it to see through to the very end. When people have the opportunity to help shape the design and plan for it, they know exactly what the demands on them will be going in, and yes, there will still be weekends, holidays and comp time to spend with friends and family when much of the non-scientific working world gets time off!

Feedback is Rejuvenating

Excellent leaders don’t wait until the annual review to provide constructive feedback. In fact, they build it into their daily routine. “How’s it going? Any problems?” is a favorite phrase of my manager. And from that we establish where I stand, where I’m going, and any updates about collaborating with our peers. For everyone in the lab, praise is given for a job well done and constructive criticism is given for times when maybe plan B would have been the better option. All in all, appropriate credit is given where credit is due.

What’s more is that some of the best scientific leaders I’ve worked for have asked for feedback regarding themselves, too. They wanted to hear the good, and the not-so-good about the lab’s take on their management style. If there was something within their power to change for the better, they changed it.

Looking for an Opportunity? Try This…

Lastly, whether you are of the camp that believes that leaders are born or you think that they’re made, one important quality is prevalent: great leaders continually seek out available opportunities and forge new ones when an interesting idea strikes.

Think about it: it could mean vying for the primary role in a collaborative experiment, networking to build new relationships between disciplines that at face value may seem dissimilar, community outreach to call others to action, and other familiar opportunities like public talks or mentorship, just to name a few.

To that end, everyone is constantly moving forwards. And with greater knowledge and abilities than before!

Where will you lead us today?

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