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.