(The fond farewell. When enough is enough)
When I started my research career, a research leader’s retirement was a moment to celebrate. Their lives and their contributions were recalled through their research, their papers, their PhD graduates and Postdocs. The Festschrift was often published, literally celebrating their intellectual contribution to a field. Some of those researchers truly retired. Many took honorary appointments that gave them a desk or space in their old laboratory, and access to the library and email. They might mentor junior staff or be a part of a PhD student’s supervisory team. Many continued to do fabulous, original research. Others became the departmental raconteur, recalling embarrassing stories of now senior departmental researchers who were once their postdocs. The retired research leaders were appreciated but no longer had a formal role in the organisational structure.
My experience today with research leaders approaching an age that would, before, have been the time to retire — the time that I am beginning to see on my horizon — is somewhat different. The game now is one of holding back the younger researchers, and hanging on, limpet-like, to substantive position for as long as possible. It is cast as an age discrimination issue. If I am capable, and I am performing at a high level, then my age should not be a barrier to my continued leadership role. Indeed, I have vastly more experience than junior colleagues, and it would be perverse to choose them over me.
While it is true, age need not be a barrier to the capable performance of one’s duties, it is also true that senior positions are rare, and if they are held by an increasingly ageing leadership, how will we train and develop younger cadres of leaders? Turning over leadership refreshes ideas and organisations.
I recall a radio interviewer with a well known Australian clinical researcher. He recounted how, as a junior researcher, his supervisor put him down as the first author on a significant scientific paper — a career launcher. He had not earned the spot, but the supervisor saw his potential and also recognised his capacity to influence the trajectory of a promising career. Without debating the ethics of that particular decision — it was a different time — there is little doubt that the paper launched one of Australia’s great scientific careers. Forty-plus years after those events, I have seen very capable, senior research leaders forsake their leadership role in favour of hanging on to power. They do not surround themselves with bright, eager, up-and-comers. They do not mentor and position their staff to take over. Instead, they retain non-threatening doers, many of whom will not even appear in the acknowledgements of their scientific papers.
In a post I wrote a little over a year ago I observed that in the interests of gender fairness, men had to be prepared to relinquish power. I have a similar view of intergenerational fairness. Those research leaders among us who were born in a twenty-year, golden age between about 1945 and 1965 have been extraordinarily lucky with the opportunities that we have had. In the interests of fairness and, frankly, in the interests of science, we need to know when to step away. We can still be a part of an exciting research agenda; maybe we do not need to be seen to lead it.
Perhaps the last act of truly great research leaders is to step back.