Being a group leader in academia

Keeping an open mind, being humble, making room for mistakes, fostering good relationships, supporting career development... Leaders can take different approaches to make their research groups work and feel better, but a baseline of respect and trust is a solid starting point.
Being a group leader in academia
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First, a bit about myself: I have run a laboratory in both the US and Germany for almost 40 years. During these years I have worked with nearly 100 pre- and postdocs and countless rotation/BS/MS students, and my group has always been very diverse in nationality, gender and personality. Before I share some of my experiences, please note that there is no 'best' way to run a research group. People have different personalities and develop their own styles, and some get along better than others. You cannot try to adopt a leadership style that does not feel emotionally 'right' – if you try, it will backfire sooner or later.

Broadening our minds

Let me begin with some reflections on our self-image as scientists. Many of us who are academic leaders take pride in ourselves on being at the top of our game. It feels good – right? It is an attitude that we pass on to our students and postdocs. However, it is arrogant and conceited to consider as second-rate anyone who leaves academic research and thus the path to the professional Olympus as we see it. We should be more humble and accept that we are highly privileged to be paid by the public sector or some private foundations to do work that we can decide for ourselves, free from any outside constraints (well, except from our peers who decide on our grant applications…). Some of my most successful students have gone on to top positions outside of academia – positions that I most likely would not have gotten even if I wanted to. Being a research scientist is a highly specialized career that requires certain qualifications and personality traits – other careers are just different and require different qualifications, and they may be equally or even more demanding and important than what we do. Feeling superior or smarter than a younger colleague just because he/she chose not to stay in academia is a serious mistake and may not only be wrong, but may also damage their self-esteem and poison personal relationships in your group.

“Prof, I think I made a mistake...”

One of my ground rules is that none of your group members should ever be afraid to admit mistakes even if they were avoidable, or to report failed experiments even if they should have worked. Fear is the worst motivator. It is not conducive to the development of creative ideas and independent thinking, and it can actually have a negative impact on the quality of your science. Of course, each of us feels frustrated and angry from time to time. We also often feel that someone could be working harder. There is nothing wrong with sharing these thoughts, as long as it is done in a way that ensures that, despite the criticism, you respect them as adult professionals just as you also expect to be respected. For example, while everyone needs to learn to be criticized, there is nothing worse than putting someone down in front of others. Of course, you have a lot more experience, but you should convince and motivate them based on your knowledge and skills and the respect you have earned, not just because you are the boss and can put pressure on them, even if it is pressure you feel yourself.

Another piece of advice I have is not to micromanage your group. Young and ambitious leaders in particular often feel that they need to know what everyone is doing at all times, that they need to be on their backs to make them work harder and prevent mistakes or waste time on unproductive side issues. Sure, beginners need guidance (some more than others), but if you do not give them room to try out things on their own they will never become independent. I still remember how hard it was for me to accept that students should have the freedom to make mistakes that could have been avoided if they had consulted with me beforehand (well, within limits, of course…). It is essential that they take intellectual and emotional ownership of their project rather than just doing the work only because you ask them to.

The fine art of getting along

How do you select new members for your group? Of course, we all want to accept only those who share our enthusiasm for science. However, in my experience it is very difficult to predict at the beginning whether someone will become a superstar or turn into someone whose strengths clearly lie outside of academic research. In fact, I have been wrong more than once in my initial assessment. It can also be quite counterproductive to assign the wrong person to a particular project. For example, a project that requires fiddling with parameters to get a new method to work needs someone who loves such fiddling, not someone who is theoretically brilliant but does not like to be bothered with the lowdown of experimental details.

It is at least as important to involve your group members in your choices of new group members – if they object, take it seriously. There is nothing worse than people fighting each other. Also, putting people together who do not get along is a recipe for disaster – chemistry is important. A good working atmosphere is worth a lot – you should do everything you can to promote and maintain it, and to resolve conflicts as soon as they arise. Of course, there are red flags – if you lose trust in someone, or conversely if someone in your group no longer trusts you, it may be best to part ways, preferably amicably.

Finally, you should be aware that your interests and those of your group members overlap but are not identical. For example, if you are lucky enough to work with a budding superstar who is productive and moving your group forward, it is obviously in your best interest to keep that person as long as possible. However, for the career development of such an outstanding young colleague it may be better to move on sooner. In such cases it is best to have an open discussion and ultimately accept your young colleague’s decision amicably, even if you did not get your way in the end.


Photo by Margarida CSilva on Unsplash 

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