I heard a talk about a year ago from one of my scientific heroes, Harvey Lodish. The reason he’s a hero to me isn’t only because of his science. It’s also because of his leadership. There was a statement he made to his fellow senior investigators. He said that most of science owes its success to the young scientists out there, postdocs, students, tech, and the like. They dared to explore the experiments that his fellow senior scientists said couldn’t be done. I found it inspiring and others in the audience did too.

Honor HarveyI don’t think that many of us think of scientific leadership as a skill set necessary in science. We believe that the experimental designs and the innovative engineering is what drives the science. We forget that it’s the people behind that creativity that makes it happen.  Those people need guidance. It’s the human nature to need nurture. That nurture comes in the form of leadership.

In my management journey and my leadership lessons, I’ve come up with some core skill sets that highlights a scientific leader.


1. Believes science benefits society.

Science answers the questions and helps to solve issues that afflict mankind and life. My old PI used to say that there were two types of science; “so-what” science and “this changes everything” science. Which one are you pursuing?

2. Communicates their science to a wide audience.

The benefactors of scientific research is the general public. Working only within a tight network ultimately is detrimental to, not only the scientific community, but to all communities that fail to understand the research impact. We all should learn the lessons from the environmental sciences and their warnings about global warming.  Check out the work by Randy Olson. Or if that doesn’t move you, think about recent political choices.

3. Prioritizes mentorship over authorship.

Science is the pursuit of knowledge, but when that knowledge stops with you, then all is lost. A scientist’s true weight lies within his/her legacy. Those who learn and build off of their mentors’ work brings more validity to their leadership skills.  Ask those who’ve come from Harvey Lodish’s lab.

4. Motivates through vision, but instructs through logic.

There are too many moving parts in science. And now that science is becoming more multi-disciplined, having a clear vision is ever more important. A true leader is someone that can see that long term vision.  He/she can effectively communicate to the separate disciplines in order to reach the unified goals.  A leader can recognize that separate disciplines have their own unique language and then can communicate in their language.

5. Sees science as a creative process.

Many believe that science is technically a left brain process that has routine methods. While some aspects may seem that way, it takes a creative, right-brain, person to orchestrate those route tasks and teams. The trial and error is a natural part of any creative process. In the way they approach scientific questions, scientists are no different from our poets and artists. See some of the work by Daniel Pink.

What kind of leaders do you follow and / or do you want to emulate?