Francis S. Collins, known for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project, is the director of the National Institutes of Health, the largest and most prestigious biomedical research institution in the world. In an interview with Tom Fox, Collins discussed his approach to leadership, a potential medical breakthrough on the horizon, his love of music and his surprising means of getting to work each day. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You are responsible for 27 specialized biomedical research institutes and centers. How do you keep track of all that’s going on, from the promising developments to problems that might cause you heartburn?
I have an open door. I encourage people to come in and talk to me if they’ve got something they need to share. I try to keep the channels of communication with the 27 institute and center directors wide open. We meet almost every Thursday morning for two hours. The agenda is carefully chosen not only to identify what is going well, but the difficult problems. I think those relationships really matter — those personal relationships where there’s a lot of trust between all of us that we all are here to try to do the right thing. We may not always agree on how to get there, but everybody’s opinion deserves respect.
How do you take criticism?
I am not the kind of leader who wants just to hear happy talk. I want to hear what isn’t going well. I will never shoot the messenger, and I welcome people who will tell me in a planning meeting, “Hey, Dr. Collins, what you’re suggesting isn’t going to work and it might even do harm, and here’s why.” I try to surround myself with people who are incredibly bright and who are empowered to speak the truth about anything we’re doing, things that we’re forgetting and things that we might be proposing that are going to turn out badly. So that atmosphere is basically part of the DNA of this organization.
Have you experienced any unique challenges managing scientists, researchers and physicians?
We are a scientific organization, so most of the major decisions are based upon science. I think the good news is that means everybody agrees there’s a common currency of how you make a case for your position, and that is based on the best science and of course, some intuition thrown in. Scientists are not necessarily known for being wallflowers or having small egos, and that could be applied to me as well. People really believe in the power of science to solve problems, and if they think they have a solution to a problem and they’re convinced it’s the right way, they’re going to defend it rather strongly and passionately. That’s okay. I like that.
What are some exciting developments taking place at NIH?
It’s hard to pick just one. But let me give you an example. I’m excited that we might be able to use the new field of gene editing to cure sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder we’ve known about for more than 100 years, but that still doesn’t have effective treatments. It affects tens of thousands of people in the United States and millions worldwide. I can see an emerging pathway toward curing that disease using gene editing of bone marrow cells, but it will take the full intelligence, resources, and technology from the government, academia and the private sector to make it happen. A couple months ago, we asked all of the experts to show up at NIH for an intense one day brainstorming session. They knew that their advice was going to have an impact, and we are now closer to a program that could lead to a cure of sickle cell disease in as little as five years.
Have you changed your management approach as a leader over time?
I came here in 1993 in charge of overseeing the Human Genome Project. I had relatively little experience managing anything bigger than my own research lab. Initially, I was prone to make unilateral decisions based on the information I had in front of me without consulting folks who might have had different views. I was a bit insecure about whether I really was qualified to lead something of this magnitude, and a little uneasy about revealing the things that I didn’t know or asking others to fill in those gaps. I got over that, because I realized it led at times to imperfect decisions. Now as NIH director, I can’t imagine making an important decision without listening to all of the relevant viewpoints.
You are known for your singing and guitar playing. Tell me about your music and its role in your life?
I find music to be a wonderful way to unwind and bring people together. I grew up on a small farm in Virginia, and we had no television. In the evening, there was frequently music of some sort. Various musicians would drop by, usually when they ran out of money, and stay for a few days, and there were wonderful jam sessions happening. I learned the keyboard and then guitar. Now I found this to be both fun and a way to unwind when I’ve had one of those days. My wife and I occasionally invite 40 or 50 people to come to our house and bring whatever acoustic instruments they happen to play. We provide a songbook and everyone starts singing. It’s pure magic. Sometime around midnight, we figure we better give the neighbors a chance to go to sleep. There will be people in that spontaneous choir who disagree passionately about all kinds of things, especially because it’s Washington, but when we bring them together to sing like this, they are all close friends by the end of the evening.
Is there anything that people would be surprised to know about you?
Well, I don’t know how many people know that my general way of getting to work happens to be on a Harley Davidson Road King Classic. I’m a motorcycle guy. I’ve been a biker since college. I know it’s not safe, but it is still a wonderful, exhilarating feeling to get out and roar down the road with a lot of CCs underneath you.