Leading in science during times of crisis

Sašo Kočevar, Managing Director at hfp consulting and a Senior Consultant shares his views on leadership in science and adapting to times of crisis

What are the defining characteristics of a good leader in science?

Obviously, a prerequisite would be scientific excellence to be able to inspire others in the research topic common to the group. On the other hand, they have to be open and ready to listen to their coworkers to empower them. They need to have a great deal of empathy and show they care for more than output. Frustration is something that happens on a daily basis in science, and leaders should be able to understand and revert the situation by motivating their team. 

Are leaders born or made? And how do you make a ‘good’ leader?

There are people, usually extroverts, who feel comfortable under the spotlights and naturally take this leading role. However, this is just an attitude. A disposition. However this can actually lead to a risk to “natural” leaders, and it is that they think they don’t need to learn, as we have seen in politics and industry etc…

On the other hand, nothing precludes an introvert being a good leader. The most important thing is to be authentic. As there are different leadership styles and one can be as inspirational being an introvert as an extrovert one just needs to do the right things; namely: listen to your coworkers, motivate them, empower them, and resolve conflicts. Leadership is a skill that can and should be learned.

How does uncertainty affect leadership?

Uncertainty is always present. It is not specific to this pandemic. Usually things do not proceed according to protocol. And a good leader needs to act, and adapt to this changing reality by being transparent with the team about the challenges being faced and including them in finding the solutions. Therefore, adaptability is key to leadership. The strategy that worked in 2019 was not valid in 2020, and acknowledging this need to change in face of the situation is a basic leadership skill.

What are the mistakes/pitfalls to avoid when dealing with a crisis as a leader?

A basic mistake to make would be ignoring pressing issues. The other one, as mentioned above, would be increasing the pressure. Above all, people are not machines, and their feelings and emotions do impact the workplace, and that should be considered by a good leader.

Is there a specific way of leading in the midst of a crisis?

Circumstances such as the present COVID-19 pandemic affect science in several ways: from delayed experiments, to personal difficulties, disease, childcare, uncertainty for the future; these situations all lead people to turn on their “survival mode”. However, the pressure to publish does not diminish, so people experience this pressure more strongly. Leaders should help the team deal with the pressure, listen to their concerns, be empathetic, and try to look for common solutions.

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