What we think leaders are and what we don’t want in our work lives — a case study of William Watt and the Medical Research Council
I was interested in how we describe leaders and feel leaders, after the chat with Robert Harris. I want to finish this series by thinking about how we come across leaders in our work lives.
I try to find out what these people think leadership is, how they got to these positions that they’re in, where they learnt their skills, and what they think of the scientific leadership we have today.
Watt is a stem cell biologist from Britain. Her work has focused on cell regeneration. She was the first female chair of the medical research council in the UK, and has held many positions of leadership throughout her career.
The Medical Research Council is the national funding body for medical research and it is used by many non-UK people.
In the year 2022,Fiona became the director of EMBO. EMBO is devoted to excellence in the life science and is based in Germany, so it’s beneficial for non europeans.
Funded by membership from around 30 countries, it supports research, it publishes journals, it awards postdoctoral fellowships to encourage mobility, and it offers training events, courses and workshops to support its researchers.
Leadership roles in EMBO: what it’s like to be a director at King’s College London, or what does it take to make science better?
Some of her different leadership roles are discussed in this conversation. And she shares with us a little bit about what it’s like being the director of EMBO.
And after quite a few years working in a research institute, I became very interested in how you could make conditions better for younger scientists. I began to become more into leadership roles in academia.
The answer is no. I think some people take jobs because of their status. And some people take a job because of what they want to do. That is likely true in all walks of life.
And I moved to King’s College London 10 years ago. And one of the real attractions of that job was having the ability to design space for research to be conducted.
I’ve stepped down from the centre that I set up. But when I think about what has made it a happy place to work for me, part of the answer is the physical space. I don’t think scientists think about that a lot.
They might think about a nice atrium. You know, the way it looks from the outside, but I’ve worked in places where interactions between different groups were better or worse, and I think the physical space is important.
Who Are You Looking For? How Do You Think You Can Be a Leader? What Do You Want to Learn? How Did You Learn Your Leadership Skills?
I think you can be a science leader, without being head of a research group. You can be a pioneer in a field or a way of thinking. And it might not even become apparent for years that you were a leader. I believe that you can be a leader with no line managing.
And if they’re a thought leader, then they will influence others by what they write and how they speak. It is important to be the public face of EMBO if it is an organization.
Where did you learn your leadership skills? Like, was it just learning by doing? Or did you take courses? Or did you have a mentor? I wonder if you saw people that were doing a great job, and then said, “Yes, I want to lead like they do.”
You know, when I was starting out, there were very few women scientists. Most of my support came from women scientists based in the US, because of what I do.
How Do You Think of yourself as a Leader? A Question that I had to Ask My Mother When I Was Going To Train and When I Did I Wanna Train?
I didn’t feel like I had training. I feel like I have control over my career now because of that experience. How am I going to do it?
I think so. And I know a lot of people, so you can sort of… you know, if you’re, if you’re observing people, you can pick up things that you like, or you would do it differently.
I think it is completely different now. And one of the things that EMBO has run for many years is a lab management course, which is targeted at scientists just at the cusp of independence.
Helping young people who have undergone my lab and have done the course is better than me because they get to know the common challenges you face early on.
So I don’t know if you’ve done any of those like leadership style, you know, questionnaires or anything like that throughout your career. But do you have a leadership style? Do you know a particular name for it? Or, you know, how do you think of yourself as a leader?
What do scientists say about their leadership style, and how scientists can make a positive impact on the public good and the university’s reputation?
I think it’s important that people are not frightened to tell you when you’re wrong. And I don’t, I think in a science context, you have to deeply respect the aspirations of the younger scientists in your care.
So I think we really have to try to understand: “How is all of this going to work?” And how can we ensure that the creativity and independence of scientists can flourish?
So you’ve talked a little bit about about your leadership style, and what you think sort of makes good leadership. What do you think about bad leadership?
I don’t like when a leader in a role is just in it to get attention, to be praised, and not do any for the organization.
You know, you can do it, do the experiment, you can realize afterwards that this was not done correctly or the numbers are wrong, or the interpretation is wrong.
You have seen science at its highest level. And you have worked with people at the very highest levels of science, who are the decision makers, often, whether it comes to funding or policy, or strategies for direction of research and training and all of those things. Do you think that science and the scientific endeavour is served well, by its leaders?
I think there is a real trust issue here. I saw it in the paper. I believe scientists have a positive reputation. Academics don’t because any discussion with government will quickly end with “you should give me more money for my type of science and my university.”
What did you do at EMBO when you first became a Professor at King’s Research Centre? A response to an early career question about the fact that you had no idea how to lead
At EMBO, I’m going to have a bunch of people who have done it well in other countries together, so that we can better advise governments.
Okay, so we’ve already touched on this a little bit when we talked about your career and how you took on more and more leadership positions, and I guess, more leadership positions with more responsibility as you move through your career.
When you’re an early career researcher, you said you can be a leader without having a big group of people to lead.
And that can be quite, it’s sometimes quite scary, but it’s also really refreshing. But to go back to your question. I would actually start right at the beginning with PhD students.
10 years ago, I decided to set up a research centre at King’s and was surprised when I was appointed as Executive Chair of the MRC. That was in the year of 2018.
Because, as I conduct my next set of studies in the lab, I created a company that would not fit with the MRC, and so I am going to start a new company.
What isn’t to like when EMBO calls? Why I’m glad to be a part of an EMBL organization
What is not to like when EMBO calls? It’s International, it’s focused on young scientists, it’s about sharing data, whether publishing or open science initiatives, and to be back in a world class research institute in EMBL, was just fantastic.
It is a nice organization. We are constantly checking to see if we can do each of the tasks correctly, and making sure they are not messed up.
The effect on our interns has also been felt. And we’ve been able to use money to provide extensions, small extensions to the postdocs.
And so we moved quite quickly to establish a list where scientists anywhere in the world could offer support for scientists who are displaced from Ukraine. It has been an important effort by a leader of a large organization to how IT strategy decisions were made.
Part of the responsibility is that we take a look at it and see if we are doing it the right way. Are there things that we did 10 years ago, which aren’t so important?
There are a number of journals that we publish. And we have to consider a future in which all of our journals, not just a subset, are open access.
What Are We Really Talking About in Nature Careers? An Introduction to the Leadership Series on Working Scientist ‘Tilted’ by Judy Gould
We consult all of the time. We don’t just sort of tally the votes and say, “Oh, we’ll do that,” because all our staff are reaching out asking for advice. That is dependent on an element of direction.
Hello, I’m again. Just a quick note to say thank you to Fiona Watt for taking the time to speak to me for this episode as part of the leadership series on Working Scientist.
Also, thanks goes to you for listening. Every single listen means a lot to our team here at Nature Careers as we strive to share stories and advice that will ultimately help you navigate your career as a working scientist.
The topics we choose are the most useful and interesting to you. But we would be really interested to hear what you think. What should we discuss on the show? What do you think of the podcast? What topics would you like us to look into?
We would like to know what you want to know about the show. Alright, that is all. Thanks for listening. I’m Judy Gould.
Learning how to communicate as a leader: How I met Robert and his colleagues in Istanbul, Turkey, during the 2022 ORPHEUS meeting
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.
I talked with the outgoing president of the organization while I was there, because I was invited to speak about mentorship for graduate researchers.
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.
And I’ve studied leaders in many aspects in how they are (good) communicators, and looked at leaders who have been very efficient communicators. To learn how successful they were.
And that was just like, such a wonderful thing to learn that that’s where it came from. Keep it simple. I learned a lesson how to communicate as a leader. Don’t keep it complicated. And don’t make your language complicated.
What he had to do with his time in Afghanistan and how he became the soldier of the Second World War (and what he did with the ex-Navy Captain David Marquet)
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.
He prepared himself for each talk he gave. He was very entertaining. 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.
There was a lot of noise in the background when we were talking. So I wanted to tell you a little bit about something Bob said.
The interview he did with the ex-Navy Captain David Marquet was one of the most significant interviews he did.
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.
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 allow other people to do it. I make sure that everything is going in the right direction. It is like a puppet master where you can’t see the hands at work, but you are guiding. Making suggestions and asking the right questions is all that’s needed.
I think it’s not to say that you can’t make decisions when something bad happens, and you have to act and you have to come in and give your hand if it is needed.
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 isn’t interested in education is not a good one.
A research institute leader who is not really wanting to push for a lead to research is not necessarily the right leader there. It is very much context dependent.
We might be 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. That is where our competencies are.
What is 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. To try and make a difference there.
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.”
This is something that associate professor of organization behavior, who happens to be from the French campus of INSEAD, thinks people would answer when they are with a real leader.
I felt really accepted for who I was. I felt challenged to be more than I thought I could be. You know, you might have had a mentor that made you feel like that.
What you felt when you met a leader: How you felt like you were inspired and why you didn’t feel like you needed to do something
Tell people about the leader you met. They never say that the person is a visionary or that they are really impressed with the leader of the strategy.
What they say is like, “Oh, I felt when this person was in the room I felt something. I suddenly started feeling calm, or clear, or cared for. And then I wanted to do something.”
When we experience leadership what comes to mind is a relationship. In a relationship, we are moved in this beautiful double sense of the word, but also moved to do something. You might be an artist if you are moved emotionally. If you can just move me physically, you are a bus.
You are not motivated if a story stops moving you. If a story stops moving people you are no longer following them. 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.
What Do You Think is the Most Useful in Your Leadership? An Empirical Analysis of the Angular Power Tension in the Bayesian Group
It is a kind of love for those that you are trying to protect, or those that you are trying to advance. It’s ultimately a kind of love for a certain future that you are committed to try to help realize.
And it’s not enough for you to just say it. You also have to show it. I fundamentally do not agree with the idea that leadership is all about telling stories.
What do you think will be the most useful in 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.