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The Importance of Scientific Leadership Skills 

One white male, one Black male, and one Asian woman wearing white lab coats talk in a lab

It takes years to earn the education to be a scientist, so what is the importance of having scientific and leadership skills? Good leaders push their team to work more effectively, focus on a central vision, and motivate each other to deliver on the group objectives.

3 Reasons Scientists Need Leadership Skills

Many scientists will need to take on leadership responsibilities in their careers. Regardless of how comprehensive their science education is, it rarely includes leadership and management abilities training. It's something that career professionals in this industry must look for outside their normal science-oriented studies.

These abilities are essential when it comes to advancing to a senior position. In academia, a career scientist may need to supervise students or postdoctoral researchers. In business, a scientist could wind up in charge of a research lab or managing a team of fellow scientists for a biopharmaceutical or other sector corporation.

1. Science Leadership Problems

A scientist responsible for leading a team or lab faces a number of specific challenges. According to a national survey conducted by Nature, problems with lab culture were shown correlate with lack of management training. The survey showed that "Scientists who took the survey said they wanted more principal investigators (PIs) to take training courses, and suggest that PIs ask for feedback from their lab groups more regularly."

Another concern with scientific leadership could be seen in other sections of the study. Almost 90% of PIs indicated their lab or group members understood what was expected of them, and two-thirds said the group never or rarely condoned research procedures that cut corners, such as preferring speed over quality or accuracy. In contrast, only two-thirds of non-PIs stated they knew precisely what their PI expected of them, and only 43% indicated their group never or seldom took shortcuts.

The survey findings showed that one of the most significant causes of an unhealthy lab culture is a lack of leaders with appropriate leadership skills. Many of the 3,200 participants suggested that a lack of training may be the root cause of the disconnect between senior and junior researchers.

2. Employability in Any Organization

Leadership and management skills training improves employability and forward career movement in almost any organization. For many employers, these skills are crucial for ascending to a senior position, yet they are not part of regular scientific education. That lack of leadership training puts a hole in the skill sets of scientists and what they need to know to excel as leaders in their field.

Top-level education facilities often offer this level of training, but they don't mandate it. Yet, when it comes to employability, organizations often look for leadership proficiency.

The survey findings showed that one of the most significant causes of an unhealthy lab culture is a lack of leaders with appropriate leadership skills.

3. Leading a Research Team

There is a mismatch between the skills sought by employers and those with which science graduates enter the workforce. When comparing abilities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers and non-STEM employees, individuals from a STEM background are seen to lack interpersonal skills and time management. According to students and employers, these abilities are typically underdeveloped in traditional scientific curricula.

According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs study, the talents most sought after by employers include problem-solving, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills. Such abilities can be learned through a leadership education program.

What Are the Essential Leadership Skills for Scientific Professionals?

Beginning a job that covers many issues outside of scientific work can be intimidating. Knowing that a scientist may one day lead a team can help them see the need to develop leadership skills earlier on.

Budgeting and Resource Allocation

Leaders in science must take on some common skills in business. They must understand how to budget to include personnel costs and acquisition of equipment and lab supplies, and where to cut expenses to save money.

Resource allocation and management require planning, scheduling, and assigning people, technology, and funds to a project or program. It is, in essence, the process of allocating resources to maximize organizational value. Good resource management ensures that the appropriate resources are available at the proper time for the necessary activity.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

Data-driven decision-making involves using data in the decision-making process taken from one or more data sources. A skilled scientific leader can evaluate data and judge the quality of the sources. Data-driven decision-making necessitates the implementation of many systems, such as data gathering, data processing, and data visualization.

Leaders in any field, including science, use data in their decision-making process and base their conclusions on the data that they have gathered. The purpose of the scientific leader is to make well-informed judgments.

This form of decision-making requires the ability to manage the rapid increase in data availability. It also means pinpointing the key performance indicators in business and scientific results. Leaders must have the communication skills to present this data to personnel and stakeholders.

There must be a willingness to adapt and learn from other cultures and apply their perspective to a project.

Legal and Ethical Conflict Management

Because research frequently requires considerable collaboration and coordination among different individuals from many fields and organizations, ethical norms encourage qualities vital to collaborative work such as trust, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. In scientific professions, ethical principles encourage research goals such as knowledge, honesty, and mistake avoidance.

Scientific leaders must identify legal or ethical issues before they become a problem. They must also rein in conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas that may be red flags.

Senior science researchers must be accountable to their funding sources and the public for distributing those monies. Scientists have the added burden of upholding the social values of the culture. This is especially true when it comes to human and animal rights.

Team Leadership Skills

A good team leader has multifaceted skills involving strong communication, project management, and encouraging collaboration.

  • Communication: It is critical to communicate in a way that everyone is on the same page with a clear set of expectations they understand. Strong communication is also a two-way street, so a scientific leader must listen to the team's various requests and points of view with projects or processes.
  • Project management: Incorporating project management techniques in a scientific research setting can help teams establish better timelines, efficient allocation of resources, and accurate measurement of results.
  • Collaboration: Strong leaders can instill a culture of collaboration with their teams, but it starts with the leader's own behavior. Collaboration is key not only in the team setting, but also with peers, upper leadership, and partners across the scientific and research community.

Multicultural Leadership Skills

Leaders who operate across cultures recognize that cultural differences will emerge. The most exemplary leaders will plan for and assist their teams in identifying and adapting to cultural differences. This is a key pillar of developing a personal leadership skill set, style, and plan.

Working in a multicultural environment requires the ability to seek different perspectives and not judge one culture based on the values of another. There must be a willingness to adapt and learn from other cultures and apply their perspective to a project. That cross-cultural relationship-building quality will instill trust in a diverse scientific culture.

Developing Leadership Skills as a Science Professional

Scientists should be influential leaders at all levels of their careers. Most of the skills that make one a good leader are obtainable, so following the right educational path is critical.

The University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies can help you gain the business and leadership skills that enhance scientific knowledge and grow your career. Find out more about the Leadership for Science Professionals Certificate or the Master of Professional Studies in Applied Sciences Leadership available from the U of M.