Wednesday, 8 April 2015

What makes a scientist an outstanding leader? - Dr Rebecca Bowden

Listening to Radio 4 over the Summer I overheard a programme debating the challenges for Afghanistan as the new Government was faced with trying to pull together a highly fractured society. The interviewee was of the opinion that several of the candidates for leadership in the new government had more of a chance of bringing together all the warring factions than their predecessors because of their scientific and technical backgrounds (the new President is an anthropologist and the CEO a doctor of medicine; several of the senior leaders have engineering doctorates). The interviewee seemed to think that the ability to analyse complex problems in a dispassionate way was precisely what the country needed. I'm not sure this ability is unique to scientists and engineers – and it seems to me that whoever is to take on the job of bringing Afghanistan from the brink of self-destruction will have to be a pretty outstanding and remarkable individual – but it got me thinking about the qualities of an outstanding leader and whether there were any that were particularly found amongst scientists and engineers.

Some weeks later, I visited the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, where I was reminded that the chief reason that I first got interested in becoming a scientist was because of the remarkable stories of individual scientists and engineers. It was the human qualities of those individuals that fascinated me, not just the hard facts about their scientific work.

One of strongest qualities required of a good scientist, and a good leader too, is perseverance: The ability to keep going through many set-backs. As Marie-Curie, the recipient of Nobel Prizes in two different fields, and a rather remarkable woman, said ‘Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves’.

Of course blind perseverance in the face of all the evidence is not a quality of a good leader.  Scientists and Engineers must be good at taking risks and being willing to fail. The Mathematician and Biologist Jacob Bronowski put it best when he said: ‘Science is the acceptance of what works and the rejection of what does not. That needs more courage than we might think’.

Sometimes when we first encounter science in school we assume that science involves the learning of lots of facts correctly – when actually it is more about the great detective story of piecing all the evidence together and coming up with a theory – then testing that theory to see if it is the right one. In my experience inspiring leaders need some degree of fallibility – to be wrong sometimes and to admit it – to balance their willingness to take risks. Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 said, ‘an expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field’. Most exceptional leaders have made a whole heap of mistakes along the way – but they have always learnt form them.

Of course both the above qualities are nothing without good communication, remembering that this is a two way process. A good scientist (and leader) can clearly explain complex ideas, and paint a verbal picture of their vision, no matter who is in their audience. But they must also be able to listen. As that great communicator, the astronomer, Carl Sagan said, ‘Valid criticism does you a favour’.

One of the most attractive qualities of scientists and engineers I think, is that they are always questioning, always learning – it makes them fascinating people to hang around with. As Isaac Newton said, ‘to myself I am only a child playing on the beach, whilst vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me’. Many years later Charles Darwin, who made some great discoveries but got a few things spectacularly wrong, said ‘I love fool’s experiments, I am always making them’. It is this sense of wonder that I found most appealing about science growing up, I think.


Of course the qualities I've listed are not unique to scientists – and are not enough on their own perhaps to make a great leader – but maybe if we could teach science in a way that demonstrated these very human qualities of scientists and engineers, we could inspire more young people to enter a profoundly rewarding career? And maybe if we could remind scientists and engineers that they have all these qualities, we could also show them what good leaders they could make?

- Dr Rebecca Bowden, CEO SATRO

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