Throughout a four-decade career, Dr. Michael Gottesman has led seminal studies in the treatment of drug-resistant cancer cells and played an instrumental role in improving the rigor of medical research as the deputy director for intramural research for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During Gottesman’s tenure, he has developed and championed programs to encourage women and minorities to pursue science and come to NIH. He also created special programs that annually train 6,000 individuals, ranging from high-school and college students to post-baccalaureate and post-doctorate fellows.
Gottesman, who is a 2013 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalist, spoke about the leadership challenges at the nation’s premier health research institution with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. How would you describe your leadership style?
A. The main tool that I use in terms of leadership is collegiality. NIH has a federated structure—there are 27 institutes and centers. So I work very closely with the institute directors and the scientific directors who are involved and support our research. I work with the clinical directors and with NIH leadership (the director of the NIH and various deputy directors) to come up with ways in which we can support our scientists. So there’s a lot of listening.
Q. In this current fiscal environment, how are you attracting top researchers and scientists to the NIH?
A. We have two strategies. First, we try as best we can to grow a diverse pool of future scientists. We train people at all levels from high-school students all the way up to the most advanced post-doctoral fellows and physicians. And we found that by training people at the NIH, we increase the total number of people who are really quite capable of doing medical research. In terms of recruiting at a more senior level, we obviously have a big problem now because of salary issues and the biggest area of concern relates to physician scientists. Yet we are able to attract people because of the research that’s done here, the opportunities for relatively long-term, stable research support, the opportunity to interact with all the other fantastic scientists and the chance to have state of the art equipment and facilities.
Q. Can you tell me about the salesmanship required to convince folks to adopt organizational changes?
A. Well, I don’t think it happens all at once. The advice I give people who are in situations where they have to lead change is that the most important thing is to understand the reason for the change. People want to know why you are changing something that is working. You also need to create an atmosphere where people can buy in and understand that it’s in their own interest to be able to make some changes. It’s a give and take. Sometimes there are things that people don’t particularly like, but they have to be done and will be appreciated in the long term. It’s fortunate that the NIH is a very mission-oriented organization. There’s hardly anybody here—from people at wage-grade level all the way up to our most internationally recognized scientists—who don’t have the same goal in mind, which is to do the very best science to enhance public health. And so it’s pretty easy using that as an argument as to why change needs to happen.
Q. How have the pay freeze, sequestration and other recent issues affected employee morale?
A. I wish I could say that morale at the moment was at its highest. It’s not, and I think this is true in all government agencies. People are worried that they’ve had pay freezes for several years. And with sequestration, we’ve really been fighting to deal with major cuts. The other issue that troubles NIH scientists is that travel is very restricted, and travel is an opportunity for them to interact with other scientists, to go to scientific meetings, to hear from other people and test their ideas. This is being reduced in the current environment.
Q. What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received about being a leader?
A. The person who recruited me to NIH used to talk about the science I was doing and about how to run the laboratory. He used to say, “You should always treat the people who work for you with great respect.” And then he would add, somewhat facetiously, “because one day you might be working for them.” I thought this was a very insightful remark. I also learned a lot from the previous NIH director, Elias Zerhouni, who in almost any circumstance had an aphorism which covered the circumstances. He used to say, “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.” Our current director, Francis Collins has emphasized that transparency is the key for a lot of what we do at the NIH, and the best thing you can possibly do when things go badly is just fess up and move on in your life.