Six characteristics of scientific leaders

Earlier this week, the Academy of Science held a meeting with hundreds of scientists from around Australia and New Zealand. Their aim: to identify what makes a good leader in science.

This meeting addressed the serious lack of leadership training across the research landscape. As scientists, we typically have no formal training in leadership. Instead, we learn our skills as we take on new opportunities, mostly through example. This ad-hoc learning can lead to some particularly bad habits in the next generation of researchers, especially if they have experienced unhealthy research environments.

So, what are the characteristics of a good scientific leader? Indeed, a good scientist? After open discussions with hundreds of researchers in academia, industry, and the media, some common themes emerged.



This is not to be confused with being trusted in your knowledge. Good scientific leaders build trust among their teams by fostering a forgiving, appreciative, open-minded culture; a place where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes and aren’t afraid to share their ideas, concerns and aspirations.

It seems obvious, but there were many scientists who felt this was not their experience. They were micro-managed, felt judged by their supervisors/colleagues, or felt restricted by them. Trust can only be created by empowering your team. Give credit when credit is deserved, recognise achievements - formally if possible - but equally recognise their frustrations and failings. Talk openly and honestly with your research colleagues and students and they will appreciate it.



Even if we ignore the moral imperatives, gender and cultural diversity is an enormous asset to any research team.

This was a huge topic at the meeting. It’s pretty simple really. Gathering a diverse group of people with different experiences lends itself to the generation of more ideas, it nurtures a more open-minded culture, and supplies a greater spectrum of individual strengths and weaknesses that can be combined to maximise the scientific achievements of the team. Any scientific leader would be foolish to limit themselves to only a fraction of the distribution of talent.



Robyn Williams from ABC broadcasting, who runs The Science Show on Radio National, said during his address that “Good leadership can be as easy as walking around a building and bumping into people to talk about their ideas.

So, in this age of email, get up and talk to people!”. As someone who has interviewed hundreds of scientific leaders from around the world, Robyn has witnessed common characteristics shared by highly successful scientists. He has also had the privilege to visit many research institutes, and has found that those where people walk around and enjoy conversations in the corridors are those with the highest morale. And guess what? Those with the highest moral are the most productive and often do the best science.



We all have strengths and weaknesses. Only by knowing your own can you then learn how to lead others. Of the many skills that we as scientists need, there is no one scientist that is good at all of them. You wouldn’t be human.

Let’s use a simple example. Let’s say you are always having new ideas, but don’t always see them through to a concrete output. You might be a bit of a visionary, but your attention to detail is lacking. However, you recognise that one of your post-docs has an eye for detail. They prefer to work on one thing at a time, whether that is doing long days in the lab or analysing data.

Meanwhile, you learn that one of your PhD students has a flair for science communication. By recognising the talents of your team, it is possible to supplement your limitations with their strengths. In this way, you can maximise the impact of your research and foster a healthy research culture.



Getting stuck on the details of your work is easily done. Maybe it's a new programming language that your team has to learn. Perhaps it's tweaking your team’s lab practices so that they become more time effective. There is no getting around these details. Science is inherently particular, and we can easily become isolated by the details.

However, good scientific leaders make sure that these details are discussed with their team in the context of the main research outcomes. Essentially, why do we do what we do? When John F. Kennedy visited NASA in 1961, he introduced himself to the janitor and asked what he did. The janitor told him “Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.



That’s right, this isn’t just for the professors. Everyone who’s done a PhD has learned to manage their supervisors. This, in itself, is leadership, and you can continue to practice these skills on those further up the research hierarchy.

If there is a problem, then be the one to alert the problem to your professor. But, always have potential solutions.

People like solutions, and your professor will be impressed. If they turn your idea into their own, then tell them it's a good idea. Either way, the problem will be solved, and your professor will feel good about it with you in mind.

Notice that at no point was your h-index mentioned. Unfortunately, science has traditionally recognised individuals. The Nobel Prize is one obvious example.

But, good science is more than publications. As early to mid career researchers, we have a responsibility to ensure that the national culture of research grows to embody these six points. At all levels we can build a culture of trust, diversity, altruism, self-awareness, communication and confidence.

And personally, by reminding ourselves of these six points, we can become great leaders in science.

UNSW logo ANU logo Monash logo UMelb logo UTAS logo