A good leader knows s/he doesn’t have all the answers

Sašo Kočevar, Managing Director at hfp consulting and a Senior Consultant shares his views on leadership in science.

Why is leadership needed in science? 

Professional development (communication, conflict resolution, management skills) is a relatively new field. hfp consulting has been active since 2005, and since then the relevance of programs for PhD supervisors, PIs and so on has been acknowledged. And scientific leaders are becoming more aware of their responsibility in the training of new generations of scientists, not only because of their personal impact, but also because it reflects on their scientific production.

However, scientific prowess is measured mostly at the scientific production level, so some people think it doesn’t matter to what personal cost this is achieved, which implies the loss of very capable researchers. This is an endemic problem for science and society, because without good inspiring leaders, there will be no new motivated, creative, and innovative  generations pushing research forward.

Do you think initiatives like the HR Excellence in Research Award might help improve the value of leadership in science?

This initiative shifts the focus  from purely looking at one’s publication record to include other organizational procedures to foster scientists’ careers and working conditions, and creates a framework for institutions to develop their research structures.

What makes a good leader? And more specifically, what makes a good scientific leader?

In my opinion, a good leader is mindful about the role s/he’s playing and its implications. Because they are in that position because they’re capable of inspiring people, and strive towards a common goal, despite the challenges faced. A good leader knows s/he does not need to be perfect, and can turn to the team for answers/discussion.

Compared to fields like industry, science is very individualistic, people are mostly focused on their own publications, their own grants, however, collaboration is also a must. So, a leader in science must develop a team spirit within the group, foster interactions, and try to lower the pressure on co-workers. The scientific career is a constant race under pressure: to publish, to get funded, a new contract, working insecurities…, and a good leader should help reduce this burden on his/her co-workers.

Are there different leadership styles? 

Once the concept of leadership is clearly understood, then the application will be customized. There is no one size fits all strategy. Everyone has a particular leadership style based on their personality, preferences, and naturally on their environment; the people working with them, and the changing circumstances they face. For instance, if a research project is about to be scooped, you need to react fast. However, in times of looking for new research directions, where creativity is needed, this strategy would not be appropriate. 

There is a marked shortage of women in leading positions, and the glass ceiling is a reality in many industries, also clearly observed in STEM. Would you encourage women to play leadership roles?

Already the fact that these questions are raised is a problem. If we question why minorities (racial, gender…) can be leaders, we are already discriminating against them. To encourage diversity, even research field diversity, an integrative approach to science is needed. And this is a leadership task: to change this situation for the future, and integrate them. Specific programs for minorities, although incredibly important, are not enough. 

What do you think stands in the way of women leaders in science?

There are system deficiencies that limit access to leadership positions, not only to women, but to everyone who doesn’t belong to the white and male category, that need to be addressed. But it is not only science culture itself that stands in the way, it is also societal changes that are needed to support a more active role of women in science.

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