Research Leaders

Over a 20 year career in global health research, I have worked with some great researchers and some inspiring leaders. They were not necessarily the same people. As the second piece in my reflections on leadership, I discuss the idea of the leader itself.

Two of the most thoughtful leaders I know are Rob Macredie and Richard Parish, both of whom I met while working in the UK. They are not the only impressive leaders I have ever met. Setting them apart, however, was the extent to which they thought about leadership itself: how to lead and how to lead better. Some people do seem to be “natural leaders”, but as far as I can tell, this is the exception rather than the rule, and there is a danger believing that leadership cannot be learned. Thoughtful leaders have a self-reflective, inquisitive edge in improving their skill. 

Of course, if you can learn to become a leader, does this mean that you have to wait until you are promoted to a leadership position before you can learn? And if you can learn to be a leader before you are in a leadership position, how do you practice? To my mind, the real value of these questions is that they reveal a problem with the ways we think about leaders and leadership.

Pick up almost any book or article on leadership, and it envisages a leader as a person who carries a “boss” position within an organisation: the CEO of a research organisation; the head of a department; a team leader. This view is too narrow to capture what it is to be a leader and limits an organisation’s opportunities to recognise and develop leaders.

My 3 am take on a leader is… “A person who acts strategically to move a collective towards its goals. Short, pithy, perhaps a little uninspired (3 am has delusional qualities), and with some nonetheless potentially provocative implications.

First, leaders can lie anywhere in an organisational structure. Second, in acting strategically, leaders may develop and evolve the strategy itself. Third, leaders may set and refine the goals of the collective. It is worth noting that, in the context of this definition, a collective may be (as I tend to think about it) a research group or research organisation, or it may be a commercial organisation or a team within a company, a school, a civil society organisation, or indeed society itself.

The key to being a leader lies in goal-directed, strategic action. That is, they think and act beyond the operational. Not all leaders will set strategy; not all leaders will set goals. Some leaders will hold positions in organisations that do not empower them to set strategy or goals. And some leaders will have both those authorities and would be well-advised not to wield them. Indeed one example of bad leadership is characterised by the need to be an agent-of-change in a collective that is already set on the right course and working effectively.

In the world of agile software development ( “Agile”), there is a refreshing approach to leadership. The software development team will have a head, but leadership roles evolve and shift according to the needs of the team at any time to ensure delivery of the product. One person may step into a leadership role now because of the skills and expertise she possesses, and another person will step up later; this is all done according to the flexible needs of the team to achieve its goals. Teams work this way because of Agile’s short cycles of incremental development and reflection as the software gets better and better.

Agile approaches may not work for the entirety of an organisation. They may, nonetheless, be ideal for smaller, fast-moving, evolving areas of research, a development unit in HR, or a commercialisation team working with a new scientific invention. The key idea, here, is that leaders should be encouraged to emerge according to need and circumstance, not according to rank and hierarchy. These agile leaders won’t be reworking the organisational strategic plan or resetting the organisational goals (unless that is the task). They can, nonetheless, evolve local strategy and local goals. Still, they can act strategically to advance the collective towards its goals — perhaps in something as simple as a small team writing a grant proposal. Interestingly, McKinsey & Co. has begun to embrace ideas of Agile in business transformation.

The management literature talks about “managing up“. If we are to develop research leaders, it is undoubtedly, at least as necessary to prepare staff for leading up. Some of the most successful leaders I have known, lead up. They work behind the scenes, they influence, they nudge, they target. Highly strategic, they are usually well-recognised within the organisation, but often unknown beyond it.

Reflecting on junior colleagues in my Division, some do their job, but some do their job and lead up. And they do this without stepping out of role or stepping on toes. A recent example was a colleague who suggested and then implemented process changes to the management of a large project. The changes will bring more reliable accountability mechanisms to bear for delivering research outputs on time.

Valuable organisational lessons emerge from all this. Invest in developing leadership skills at all levels. Take mentoring seriously. Embed the vision of the organisation, the department and the team to encourage strategic actors.