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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

About Leadership

Miyamoto Musashi: His Life & Writings
I have been working in life science research in industry, government and academe in three countries for about 30 years. One impression is ominous. Good leadership is precious and rare. The Japanese General Shinmen Musashi remarked in his Book of Five Rings on the importance of skill and practice: “If you can beat ten enemy, you can fend off an army of 10,000 with 1,000 of your kind.”

Too true, General! Skillful training and practice are important building blocks of a competent fighting force. The General's most fabled expertise covers these issues most meticulously. Similarly, in academe a lot of thought is spent on how to groom young talent. The Max Planck Society holds regular meetings on the subject at a beautiful place in the Bavarian Forests called Schloss Ringberg, and avenues appear carefully chosen to lead the young successfully toward these goals.

However, according to the great Musashi a third condition must be met to succeed on the battle field. That is, you need generals who care to understand their soldiers well enough to deploy them to their fullest effectiveness. This is the art of good leadership.

I met two styles of leadership in academe. Both are endowed and not willfully chosen. One is the micro-manager. This person essentially recruits help to implement her/his ideas. Since scientific exploration is often a self-centered enterprise, this style of leadership comes naturally to institutions of higher education and may lead to outstanding recognition. The Harnack-principle of the Max-Planck-Society is one institutionalized example of the approach. That is, the Society used to build research institutes around promising talent of choice who directed the future of the institutes.

The drawback of this strategy reveals itself when the great leader steps down. The social implications pose tantamount problems. The director may have surrounded him/herself with loyal, long-standing deputies. None of them could groom their career to the level of recognition necessary to be able to stand in for the old leader. Eventually, the Society is confronted with what to do about the “rump” after the “head” is off. Moreover, the question of continuity is unresolved. The great talent's research path may end forever. In science, continuity of knowledge is essential. It is always possible that someone somewhere else picks up the lose ends. However, dislocated transitions are rough. Valuable experience may be lost forever.

The other style of leadership is the delegator. The delegator is a person who picks people who fit the plans in general terms, encourages them to pursue their ideas with as little interference as possible and allows them to develop their careers to their fullest abilities. If they succeed, a research enterprise may be born that outlasts any individual. Examples for this style of leadership are rarer. I had the privilege to meet a few. One succeeded in elevating an academic department from oblivion in research to world-renown with one Chair and two Associate positions in less than 10 years. Another managed to set in motion a gigantic scientific endeavor that spawned a series of Nobel laureates. Its main theme of research attracts millions of dollars of support today and sustains thousands of researchers.

Make your decisions wisely. Power is elusive. The only instance you wield it may be when you hire somebody.

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