Showing the love as a science leader: the emotional side of empowering and inspiring others

Julie Gould: 00:09

Hi, it’s Judy Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to this series on the podcast, All about leadership.

Each episode in this series explores leadership from a different perspective. We’ll hear from academic leaders, research institute leaders, industry leaders, young leaders, as well as someone who studies leadership and what it really means.

I tried to find out what these people think leadership is, how they got to these positions that they’re in, where they learned their skills, and what they think of the scientific leadership we have today.

In May of 2022 I went to Istanbul in Turkey for the 2022 ORPHEUS meeting. ORPHEUS, or The Organization for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in the European System, is focused on supporting research faculties and departments with their developing graduate schools.

The meeting was focused on discussing the quality of training environments in academic institutions across Europe, with several member universities sharing their experiences and ideas.

And whilst I was there, (because I had been invited to speak about mentorship for graduate researchers), I took the opportunity to sit down with the outgoing president of the organization, Robert Harris.

Aside from working with ORPHEUS, Robert is the head of the international advisory council and an academic vice president of doctoral education at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

I started our conversation by asking Robert what is leadership?

Robert Harris: 01:51

One needs to distinguish leadership from management. Leaders lead and managers manage. And there’s a difference. And sometimes people confuse that.

So I think that a leader leading an organization, leading a committee, is actually directing that entity and inspiring that entity to function, more than making sure it’s doing what it should be doing, which I’d see more as management.

But I’d like to think that leadership always has an aspect of inspiration.

Julie Gould: 02:25

Okay, so following a vision of some kind.

Where did you learn your leadership skills?

Bob Harris: 02:31

You learn by doing, and I study. By myself. And I do that in two ways.

One is, I studied leaders.

And I’ve studied leaders in many aspects in how they are (good) communicators, and looked at leaders who have been very efficient communicators. And to learn how they were successful.

So some examples, and it’s not….irrespective of the content, and it’s very important to say, because you don’t have to believe their views.

But for example, so in modern times, Barack Obama has been considered one of the best communicators, and most of what he said was good as well.

So that was fantastic.

His campaign: “Yes, we can,” you know, it was genius, because it came from Bob the Builder. “Can we fix it? Yes, we can.”

And that was just like, such a wonderful thing to learn that that’s where it came from. Because it’s really like, you know, keep it simple. And so I learned a valuable lesson in communicating as a leader. Keep it simple. And don’t make your language complicated.

I’ve studied Hitler and Stalin, reading a book about the dictatorships that they had, which is very much the impact of those dicatatorships, and lot of about their leadership.

And Hitler, he prepared himself before each talk he gave. He was very theatrical. He used a lot of body movements, shaking his hands and trained how he should even do those to maximum effect. And the effect was, the impact was that he could move a whole nation to buy into his ideas, which weren’t necessarily the sort of the most ethically sound ones.

Stalin was different. He was very much low key, sat at the back of the room, smoking his pipe.

But when he opened his mouth, then everyone listened to what he said. So those are two lessons to learn from there.

Julie Gould: 04:23

Now I’m cutting in here, because when we were talking, there was a lot of background noise. So I wanted to tell you a little bit about something Bob said.

Bob said that one other way that he was learning about leadership was by watching interviews with leaders on a YouTube channel called Impact Theory.

And one of the most impactful interviews for him was with the ex-Navy Captain David Marquet, who was put in charge of, at the time, the worst performing submarine in the American Navy.

It was a ship that he didn’t know, with a crew that he also didn’t know.

Bob Harris: 04:57

Then he said: “I don’t know what to do. Instead of telling people what to do, I’ll ask questions.”

And it’s empowering leadership, and getting people at every single level to buy into what they’re doing and feel that they own the decisions at that level.

And that’s what I do. So in my committees where I have a vice chairperson, I give that person lots of space.

The administrators are in charge of coordinating, they get lots of space to actually show themselves. I don’t need to be the one presenting everything, talking all the time.

I let other people do it. But I make sure what’s going on in the right way. Sort of being a bit like a puppet master, where you can’t see the hands at work, but you’re guiding. But just by asking the right questions, and making suggestions, as opposed to giving orders.

And I think that this is an empowering leadership I do in my research group.

So my PhD students, my postdocs, feel that this is theirs. This is not me telling them what to do. And then they put a lot more into it.

And I think that this is….it’s not to say that you can’t make decisions as a leader when something bad happens, and you have to act, and you have to come in and with your strong hand if it’s needed, or whatever, and make those decisions, and take the responsibility.

And it’s not a way of shirking that responsibility. But it’s a way of actually getting everybody to feel part of it. And I think that’s the beauty of leadership. And that’s the model I try and live up to.

Julie Gould: 06:22

Okay, so let’s talk about leaders in science, then. Do you think that science is served well by its current leaders?

Bob Harris: 06:29

There is no easy answer to that question because it’s yes or no, depending on who, where, and, and what. A university leader who is not interested in education is not a good leader of a university.

A research institute leader who is not really wanting to push for a lead to research is not necessarily the right leader there. So it’s very much context-dependent.

And the big question now is “Who is actually leading science? And who is defining defining the science we do? Is it the leaders of the organizations? Or is it the funding bodies and the publishing houses, which work together then to direct the agenda?

Are we being led by leaders outside of organizations? A good scientific leader will actually say, “Well, we need to modernise our way of thinking.” So the direction of where research is going, I think scientific leaders should actually have visions of where they think the next big thing is going to happen.

And now with the advent of artificial intelligence, and, you know, you can’t… you can’t say that’s not an area that we have to consider. It’s not necessarily an area you need to be expert on. And that’s where the scientific leaders could actually say, “I think we can be competitive here. I think that’s where our competencies are.”

I think we should also always think of competence over prestige, or, or other sorts of criteria. What are we best fit to do?

And what’s the nature of our organization. And that’s what a scientific leader can do. Make sure that they’re leading the direction of the development, And it should always be the development. And to try and be visionary there.

Julie Gould: 08:04

Okay. Well, thank you so much for speaking to me, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much again.

After this chat with Robert Harris about leadership, I was really interested in the difference between how we describe leaders and how we feel leaders. So I wanted to finish off this series by thinking about how we experience the leaders we come across in our working lives.

So take a moment to think back to the last time you were in a meeting with someone and you knew that that someone was a leader.

But how do you know they were a leader? How do you know they were the real deal? Now, I don’t want you to answer this question with “They had a vision and they were really committed to it and they wanted to see it become a reality.”

No, instead, I want you to answer the question from this perspective. How did they make you feel?

This is something that associate professor of organizational behaviour, Gianpiero Petriglieri from the French campus of INSEAD Business School, thinks people would answer when they were really in the presence of a true leader.

Gianpiero Petriglieri: 09:13

I felt really accepted for who I was. But I also really felt challenged to kind of be more than I thought I could be. You know, you might have had a mentor that made you feel like that.

Julie Gould: 09:26

Have you ever felt like that? Do you feel like that when the people who lead you speak?

Gianpiero Petriglieri: 09:33

You know, I made an interesting discovery, that when you ask people “what is leadership?” they kind of, you know, spit out a list. You know, vision, strategy and commitment.

But then when you ask people “Tell me about a leader you actually met.” They almost never say, “Oh, this person is such a visionary” or “I am really impressed with the leader of this strategy.”

What they say is like, “Oh, I felt when this person was in the room I, I felt something. I suddenly started feeling calm, or clear, or cared for. And then I wanted to do something.”

And so I will say, you see, it’s interesting because when we describe leadership, we think about attributes.

But when we actually experience leadership, what comes to mind is a relationship. It’s a relationship in which we are moved, in this beautiful double sense of the word, moved emotionally, but also moved to do something. If you are just moved emotionally, you maybe are a wonderful artist. If you, you know, just move me physically, you’re a bus.

Leaders are some kind of combination of a bus with an artist at the wheel.

And, and so, you know, I, I will give you the executive summary of my definition, I think, ultimately, leadership is a story that moves us. It’s a story that moves you. It’s a story that moves other people, and it is a story that moves from idea to reality.

If a story stops moving you, you lose motivation. If a story stops moving others you lose followers. And if a story stops moving from idea to reality, you lose results.

And I don’t know about you, but I think if you don’t have motivation, if you don’t have followers, and if you don’t show some results, it’s really hard to lead in the long run.

Julie Gould: 11:42

Love it. Leadership is like a bus with an artist at the wheel. He did have a rather more poetic way of describing leadership too.

Gianpiero Petriglieri: 11:51

Leadership is, if you ask from my perspective, it’s a kind of love. It’s a kind of love for an idea, that you’re trying to turn into reality.

It’s a kind of love for a group of people that you’re trying to protect, or you’re trying to expand or advance. It’s ultimately a kind of love for a certain future that you are committed to try to help realize.

So you know, there isn’t one common agreed definition of leadership. Everyone has their perspective, everyone has their models. And they are some version of “You are an individual that by virtue of your skills, or your charisma, or your ideas, gets others to do what you want.”

If you think about it, that’s the kind of picture of leadership that transpires from most people’s intuition.

And from frankly, most academic models. It’s essentially influencing others.

And I think that traditional view of leadership is, is not just limited, it’s flawed.

It’s dangerous. Because it’s essentially a fanciful way of describing dominance, of describing power.

But to answer your question, “Then how do I define leadership, you know, more precisely, rather than as a kind of love,I define it as the willingness, the ability and the trust, to articulate, embody and help realise a story of possibility for a group of people at a point in time.”

And it’s not enough for you to just say it. You also have to show it. See, there’s this view in some corner of the leadership literature, that leadership is storytelling, and I fundamentally disagree.

Leadership is not just telling a story. It’s embodying a story. It is giving that story to others. And so you have to present that story, embody that story, and then you have to help it turn it into a reality.

Julie Gould: 14:09

As you know, Working Scientist is a podcast for scientists working in science, where we explore different aspects of a working scientists’ life. From funding to communication, from team building to mentoring, and pretty much everything in between.

And we do our best to choose the topics that are the most useful and interesting to you. But we would be really interested to hear what you think. What do you think we should be talking about on this podcast? What do you think of the podcast? What topics would you like us to look into?

And what do you think would be the most useful for your career? So if you’ve got a minute, please could you take the time to leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love to hear from you.

That’s it for this episode of the Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Judy Gould.

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