The art of leading scientists


More than a year ago, I sat down with Francis Collins—director of the National Institutes of Health—to ask about his views on leadership. We haven't published his reflections until now, but it's perhaps a testament to the timelessness of his insights that they are just as compelling to read today as they were to hear in our initial conversation. Scientists might find themselves particularly struck by these words of his:

Especially if things are not going very well, and people are frustrated, and the experiments haven’t worked, or the answer wasn’t the one you wanted, or your hypothesis turned out to be wrong, or your test tubes fell on the floor, whatever it is, you have to say: “Wait a minute. Remember? We’re really lucky here. We get to do this. We are engaged in a noble enterprise to discover the truth. What an amazing experience to be able to spend your life that way, and especially to see how this might help somebody.”

You can watch a video excerpt of our conversation, or read the full interview (edited lightly for length) below:

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins talks about the "glorious adventure" that is science. Collins spoke to Lillian Cunningham, the Post's On Leadership editor, in December 2012 for this video series. (Lillian Cunningham and Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)


Q. How do you define leadership?

A. It’s this challenge of trying to develop a vision and then share it with other people so it becomes their vision, too. For me as a scientist, my leadership started out in a very modest way by trying to encourage a few graduate students to believe in themselves and to believe that science could be a valuable approach to making discoveries. And that expanded to having the challenge of leading the entire Human Genome Project—about 2,500 scientists.

But the theme was the same: trying to develop a vision that would be so compelling that people would be willing to sign on even if it cost them something, even if they couldn’t actually be in charge of everything.

For me, leadership is also about being inclusive. It means surrounding yourself by people, ideally, who are smartly than you are and not being afraid of that—actually, soaking that up, making the most of that.

Q. Do you think there are unique challenges to leading scientists?

A. Science is an interesting area to try to develop leadership. Science has a currency, and the currency is facts, evidence, data. You can’t lead other scientists just by telling them what you hope to be true. And you can’t just say, “Well this is true because I said so”—because that isn’t going to hold up.

You have to be particularly willing to admit not just what you know, but what you don’t know. Be humble. Be honest about that. Be excited about that. Don’t be threatened by the absence of information, but see it as an opportunity to encourage other people to join you in an adventure to fill in those gaps.

Q. Lots of people say that the ability to inspire others is a key leadership attribute. Do you think inspiration works the same way for leadership in the sciences? Or given what you’ve said about facts and data, are grand inspirational gestures not as effective in this area?

A. Science can sometimes get a little lost in the details. The average scientific experiment fails. The average project is pretty into the nitty-gritty. It’s not impossible for people to lose the vision if it’s not brought back to their attention. That’s one of the tasks of the leader—to say, “You guys are doing great work, but let’s step back. Why are we all here? What’s this about?”

Science is this glorious adventure into the unknown, the opportunity to discover things that nobody knew before. And that’s just an experience that’s not to be missed. But it’s also a motivated effort to try to help humankind. And maybe that’s just by increasing human knowledge—because that’s a way to make us a nobler species. But maybe it’s also to come up with something that will have a practical benefit. And for me as a physician, a lot of the motivation for science is that it ought to do something for human health. But we can get lost in the details and forget that that’s what it’s about.

Certainly that’s one of the roles a leader needs to play. Especially if things are not going very well, and people are frustrated, and the experiments haven’t worked, or the answer wasn’t the one you wanted, or your hypothesis turned out to be wrong, or your test tubes fell on the floor, whatever it is, you have to say: “Wait a minute. Remember? We’re really lucky here. We get to do this. We are engaged in a noble enterprise to discover the truth. What an amazing experience to be able to spend your life that way, and especially to see how this might help somebody.”

That’s part of what the leader has to do: Remind you when you’re a little bit distracted by the infinite details that what you’re really doing is something special, something that probably throughout the course of history very few people have been given the privilege to do.

Q. I imagine that’s something you have to do not only internally for your scientists, but also externally to Congress and the public—explaining why a tiny thing one of your scientists is working on is important and valuable.

A. Science can be pretty off-putting if it gets all tangled up in jargon and sounds like something impenetrable to the average person. The leader really has a job there to be an effective articulator of what the point is, what the progress is, why it matters, why it’s exciting. That is part of the job.

I was fortunate to have grown up in the theater and to have a chance therefore to be on the stage and connect with an audience. You know when you’re getting across and when you’re not. That is maybe not something that’s taught very much to scientists, especially those who are being groomed for leadership, but it is a really important part of the job to be able to be a spokesperson. Not that you’re hyping what science is all about. Not that you’re promising stuff that isn’t going to happen.

Q. You’ve spoken before about how faith is very important to you, as is music. How do these other parts of who you are influence your leadership style?

A. I think people involved in a team effort, whether it’s science or business, want to be considered not just as one-dimensional cogs in the wheel but as fully formed human beings. Whatever environment we find ourselves in, we should encourage that kind of multi-dimensionality of the people we have the privilege of leading.

I am also a person of faith. Belief in God is an important part of who I am. I was an atheist until I was 27 and then I became a believer—largely on the basis of an intellectual exercise I thought was going to strengthen my atheism and surprised me by converting me instead.

While it’s often not the case that scientific conversations talk much about faith, many people in the workplace have that interest in spiritual matters and I think it’s appropriate to recognize that’s part of who many of us are. Maybe this all fits with the view that if you are given the privilege of leading an enterprise—for me, leading the National Institutes of Health with 17,000 people who work there—you have to be interested in who those people are. They can’t simply be means to an end.

They may be doing incredibly important work that you’re counting on to advance the cause, but they’re also human beings with all kinds of other aspects to their personalities, to their concerns, to their families. That needs to be honored. That needs to be encouraged. Their value as individuals: that’s the most critical resource any organization has.

Q. Any moments in your career that stand out for the leadership lessons they afforded?

A.  Oftentimes the right moment to learn the most is when you’ve done something stupid, not necessarily when you’ve triumphed. I made mistakes of failing to listen to input that could have helped. I sometimes made mistakes of listening too much to one particular input, when others were available that would have balanced the outcome. I guess I learned bit by bit how to spot the moments when you really have to step up and take a risk.

I certainly remember a turning point in the Genome Project where, in my view, the strategy had to be changed in a new direction that wasn’t going to be popular—and trying to figure out how to present that to a very distinguished team of scientists from around the country and the world in a way they would recognize as painful but necessary. That was a tough day. It was a day that ultimately turned out well, but it was one of those moments when I wasn’t sure I liked being a leader. It would have been easier to have someone else say, “Here’s the bottle of medicine. You need to take it. It’s going to taste bad, but sooner or later it will make this enterprise better.”

Q. How do we create the next generation of great scientific leaders?

A. You know, in science we don’t do a very great job of training the next generation of leaders. It’s sort of a slapdash series of events that leads one person to be given that opportunity and another not. And I’m not sure we prepare people very well when they are given the chance to lead something. Most scientists ultimately find themselves in the position of supervising other people as they get to be more senior, but they aren’t necessarily given much of an opportunity to learn how to do that well. That’s something I worry about.

I think the most important feature, though, is integrity. You may fail in your experiments, you may have a hypothesis that’s wrong, you may not get the job offer you were hoping for. But if you maintain that personal integrity, people will see it and they will want you to come and lead something important.

Q. Do you think that there’s a leadership gene? Think we’ll ever find scientific support for why some people are better leaders than others?

A. Leadership is maybe partly born, but mostly learned. So what about that partly born part? Are we going to find the gene for being a good leader?


We may find there are heritable aspects of personality—it’s pretty clear there are—that may predispose some people to be more ready to take on leadership roles than others. But it won’t be all or none. It will just be a tendency to move in that direction with less challenging difficulties along the way.

Most of what I think makes a good leader is something we all have the chance to do if given the opportunity. Heritability? Maybe it’s in there somewhere. But most of this is a learned experience.

If you’d asked me when I was seven years old, growing up on a small farm in Virginia—with rather limited resources available, no plumbing, and an expectation on my own part that was vastly different from how my life turned out—I would never have imagined that I was particularly well suited for what I’m currently doing.

So I don’t think people have to imagine at an early age “I’m going to lead something” in order to have it come true. I never would have imagined, even when I was 27, or 37 or 47, that this particular task would now be mine.

For people wondering about themselves, and worrying that they aren’t on track to a leadership position, don’t worry. If you have the right characteristics, if you have the right dream, if you have that integrity and you’re interested in finding that opportunity, it may just come and find you. Even at a time when you least expect it. And then you have to decide whether to open that door. It is a wonderful privilege to have a chance to do something that involves leadership.

Q. How did you decide to open that door?

A. I had never really led anything very substantial until I got a call from Bernadine Healy, the director of the National Institutes of Health, asking me to come and lead the Human Genome Project. I wasn’t sure that was right for me. I liked what I was doing in the small environment of a laboratory quite well.

But I met with her a couple of times, and there was a moment where I was trying to say no and she said, “You know, I just got this vision of you with your walker in an old-age home, walking down the hall. And I encounter you,” she said, “with my walker. And you turn to me and you say, ‘Darn it, I should have taken that job.’”

That was a moment. Because she taped into my own dream of maybe being able to do this after all, even though I was trying to say no. Two days later I said yes.

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership. Twitter: @lily_cunningham

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Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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