What do you need to do to be an effective science leader?

Science Leadership

One thing that’s clear is that few scientists get into science to become a leader. 

In conversations with many science professionals over the last 14 years, we’ve learnt that most scientists get into science because they have a passion or an aptitude for it. Many of the scientists we work have trained for years. Those with a PhD and Post-Doctoral experience may have up to 10 years of education and research behind them.  One thing is clear – most have trained to be the best scientist they can – they didn’t train to be a leader.

Science organisations need good science leaders. This is particularly important now where we need to get the best out of science to address some of the big challenges facing life on earth – including climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, environmental pollution, water scarcity, energy supply and food security.

The big challenge, both for organisations and for individual scientists is that most early- to mid-career scientists and researchers are not well equipped to take on science leadership roles. Dr Michaela Schratzberger a science director from Cefas describes the challenge well. She says, “Scientists need to navigate an increasingly challenging set of changes in their leadership focus and skills from being deep specialists to becoming rounded scientists, from analysing data to integrating the collective knowledge of diverse networks of teams, and from solving problems to defining which problems we, as a science community, should be tackling”.

It takes years of training for scientists to become productive in their fields, let alone successful leaders. To make an impact in their field of study—to become an influencer in the scientific community—scientists need leadership skills that are rarely the focus of their formal education and that are certainly difficult to acquire on the job. 

So, what do you need to do to be a more effective science leader?

To answer this question, we have identified six fundamental Leadership Challenges that all science leaders need to address:

1. Maintaining and Building your Reputation – Whether that’s through your ‘science’, through the team you lead, or through organisational reputation, maintaining and building your reputation is fundamental. This takes place through your publication record, grant capture, attendance at conferences, and showing how your work has impact in the world. 

This also encompasses ‘thought leadership’, an often discussed subject in the science community. So, ask yourself, what can you do to: 

  • Maintain and build your reputation?
  • Improve how you express ideas that demonstrate you have expertise in a particular field, area, or topic? 
  • Ensure you participate at the forefront of your discipline?
  • Shift the emphasis of your work based on new challenges as they arise?

2. Developing a Strategic Mindset – To be an effective science leader you need to step beyond the here and now, look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, where do I/we want to go? What’s my or our vision?

As the American environmental scientist and educator Donella Meadows so eloquently put it back in 1994, “We need clarity about our goals. We need to know where we are going. We need to have vision. And that vision has to be articulated, it has to be socially shared, and discussed, and formulated. If we haven’t specified where we want to go, it is hard to set our compass, to muster enthusiasm, or to measure progress.”

Often, our busy working lives are taken up almost exclusively with day-to-day operations and decision-making. Consequently, little time is available for longer term strategic thinking which may be seen as important but not urgent. So, some questions for you to consider are: 

  • How am I going to free up time to think strategically?
  • What tools do I need to be able to think strategically?
  • Who else do I need to involve in the process?

3. Delivering Results – A good leader needs to be able to manage their own workload and that of their team. This includes managing team members, taking responsibility for operational delivery, checking day-to-day activities are completed, and ensuring projects and research are completed on time, to budget and at the level expected by you and your organisation. Delivering results requires:

  • Good organisational skills
  • Good interpersonal skills
  • An ability to work well with others
  • A resilient mindset
  • An ability to manage time well 

Which of these do you need to work on to improve your ability to deliver results as an effective science leader?

4. Collaborating and Partnering – In order to be successful in science you need suitable partners to collaborate with. Many of these will be colleagues you’ve travelled with through your scientific career. Many will be from outside your organisation. But how do you expand your network? Conferences and workshops seem like obvious places to start because of the many opportunities they provide for one-on-one scientific discussion. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Added to this is the need to work at an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary level, and to work with stakeholders, many of whom could be non-scientists. So again, think about:

  • Who’s in your network? Who should be in your network? How can you expand your network?
  • Who do you need to collaborate with?
  • What do you need to do to improve your networking capabilities?

5. Serving Others – The most effective leaders realise that leadership is not about them and that they are only as good as the people they lead. These kinds of leaders seek to be serving leaders instead of self-serving leaders. In being a serving leader, one of your most important roles is to develop your people and bring out their best. This can be achieved through effective coaching and mentoring conversations to help them make better decisions, solve problems, learn new skills, and otherwise progress their careers. So:

  • How can you be a supportive leader?
  • How can you enable your team to perform as a truly effective team? 
  • How can you build trusting relationships with clear communication?
  • What do you need to do to be confident to step back and allow others to shine?
  • How can you help bring on those that work with and for you?

6. Sustaining your own self-development –In order to be an effective science leader you need to build reputation, think strategically, deliver results, collaborate and partner effectively, and serve others in your team. That’s not a small task. 

  • So, what about you? 
  • What do you need to do to sustain your own self-development? 

Of course, development could be through further academic study, or through developing new technical expertise. But don’t forget the importance of developing your own interpersonal communication skills through leadership training, such as the CSL course, or other training in areas such as coaching and mentoring, managing your use of time, developing assertiveness, teamworking, dealing with difficult conversations etc.

Ultimately, question to ask yourself is what do I need for my own professional development so that I can be the science leader I want to be?

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