From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research
What Is Leadership? (I'm Glad You Asked)
BY NINA F. SCHOR, DDIR
Over the course of many years, I have thought a lot about leadership. What is leadership? What skills, insights, and character traits does it require? How does it differ from management? Or from administration? And how should we best choose leaders? Are there "biomarkers" for or predictors of excellence in leadership?
Being a leader is not something one learns to do overnight; nor is it something that only comes with a high rank and an official title. Leadership is a philosophy, a way of life, and a method through which one mentors and inspires people, shapes and develops complex programs, and implements a vision for a project or organization.
Leadership is best acquired gradually through successively larger and more complex portfolios of responsibility. It requires being ready to have the currency by which you are judged be the success of those you lead, not your own successes.
There are some at NIH who aspire to leadership and do not readily see opportunities or do not see the potential in themselves to fulfill their aspirations. On behalf of them, I ask my colleagues in leadership to be encouraging, empowering mentors and sponsors for these future leaders.
There are others who see opportunities and do not feel they are given an equitable chance at their attainment. This problem will only change with effective partnership. Those who feel this way must be enabled to speak out and must do so. Those with the knowledge and the power to assess potential for and assign leadership positions must mentor, offer individual critique and counsel, and delegate without micromanagement.
Still others, very few in number but big in negative impact, view leadership as a self-aggrandizing, empire-building opportunity to control others. All of us must recognize the potential of such behavior to destroy a whole institution, even as it elevates an individual, and to impede the progress of science and medicine — enterprises that depend increasingly on cross-disciplinary teamwork and cooperation.
In my view, some important guiding principles underlie great leadership. I list them here.
1) Listen well and read between the lines. The best leaders are working even when they are theoretically not. What separates the outstanding leader from the merely satisfactory one is having the vigilance to recognize the rare times when someone or something not quite straightforward is involved.
2) Learn from everyone and everything. As an academician of a certain age, when I think of those I see as mentors, it strikes me that many of them would never have used that word to characterize our relationship. They just did what they did. I was an observer, a cataloguer of what I would or would not someday make my own approach. But all were nevertheless mentors.
3) Value all components and contributions. Everyone on your team will bring something different to the table. Finding the fit between what you need and what each team member has to offer is part of the job of the leader, as is helping those whose talents do not fit your vision ultimately find a situation in which they do. The bar should be high for a standing ovation but low for respect, guidance, and kindness.
4) Thought without action is useless. Everyone loves a policy and a plan. But if they are not enforced and enacted, they don't do anyone any good!
5) Acting without thought is worse. As a leader, you will never do what everyone wants you to do. But your actions should devolve from your thoughts so that, over time, your rationale is transparent and your consequent actions are predictable and consistent to those you lead.
6) There will be things you sweat. But sweat is not blood. There is no job worth doing that does not include some elements of drudgery and unpleasantness. For me, it is reviewing budget spreadsheets! For others, it is having critical, challenging conversations. These are necessary elements of leadership and often a means to an important end. You will sweat them much less if you constantly remind yourself and think of them in the context of that end game. Mind the roadmap and the operations, but keep your eye and your heart on the vision and mission.
7) Development is forever. If there ever comes a time in life when one stops developing, I hope I never reach it! Learn, grow, admit mistakes and missteps, and always take periodic stock of effects and outcomes so you can disclose, discuss, and enact a midcourse correction.
8) If you look in the mirror and can’t laugh at the person who looks back at you, the ballgame is over. (Laugh. A lot.) This is perhaps the most important guiding principle. When the stakes are high and the stakeholders many and varied, it can be very easy to mistake your leadership role for your "self" and to take yourself too seriously. You may have become a leader, but you remain a human. You will make mistakes, say things you later regret, and feel embarrassed from time to time. It will be therapeutic for you—and instructive and empowering for those you lead—if you remain humble and can admit and sometimes see the humor in your missteps. By all means, preserve your privacy; but share your "self" with those you lead from time to time and allow yourself to laugh at that inner human.
Leadership is not for the faint of heart. It has huge impact but gets awarded no impact factors. It builds new programs and initiatives, but there are no prizes for such organizationally matrixed achievements. It ignites, fuels, and sustains innovation, growth, and cooperation and applauds from backstage those who ultimately get the applause. But without it, NIH cannot reach and sustain its full potential.
We must make opportunities for all members of our community to develop and try on for size their potential and predilection for leadership, and we must be honest with them about the importance of a measure of selflessness in that enterprise, lest we be rudderless in the future.
This page was last updated on Thursday, September 7, 2023