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The importance of leadership skills in the scientific workforce

Can leadership skills elevate scientists beyond research? According to an op-ed published in Scientific American, "Scientific leaders are needed to drive the integration of science into the wider world in a way that places science in a more influential position to help change the world for the better."

Scientists who are skilled leaders help research organizations by driving projects to completion more effectively, establishing a vision, fostering innovation and collaboration, and by engaging and motivating others to deliver on organizational objectives.

It takes years of specialized training for scientists to become productive researchers, let alone successful leaders. To make an impact in their field of study—to become an influencer in the scientific community—scientists need leadership skills that are rarely the focus of their formal education and that are certainly difficult to acquire on the job.

Successful scientists must be able to convincingly explain their research, be able to differentiate themselves in a sea of funding applications and speak confidently about their research to other scientists and non-scientists. These skills are not always emphasized in the academic environment, but are necessary to establish and run a successful research team.

How CAS supports leadership development

In 2010, CAS launched a global outreach program to help scientists expand their professional skills. The CAS SciFinder Future Leaders program brings together a diverse group of up-and-coming scientists for 10 days of leadership training, networking and innovation related to the chemical information enterprise. The unique mix of topics covered during the program serves as a springboard for participants to present their research at major scientific conferences, publish in high-impact journals, collaborate globally—and ultimately become leaders in their field.

Recently, participants expressed interest in dedicating more of the agenda to leadership training—after all, it's the Future Leaders program. Such feedback culminated in the addition of several new leadership-focused sessions this year. Here, we highlight four of these sessions with key takeaways from our speakers and tweets from participants in this year’s program.

Keys to career advancement in industry

Early career success often sets the stage for leadership. This year's participants had the opportunity to learn how organizations assess talent and capability, and most importantly, recognize emerging leaders to help them develop their career. Dr. Joseph L. Duffy, Executive Director – Kenilworth and Head of External Discovery Chemistry at Merck & Co, spoke on the topic of leadership and talent development in a commercial environment:

It was great to interact with such a highly talented group at this pivotal early point in their careers. I shared with them the three elements I evaluate for career advancement on my team. These are:

  • Mindset – where a learning mindset beats a fixed mindset;
  • Energy – where it’s better to be an energy emitter than an energy absorber; and
  • Initiative – where it is much better to be proactive than reactive.

Taking the lead in a scientific society

For a perspective on leadership in the advancement of a scientific agenda worldwide, LaTrease Garrison, Executive Vice President, Education Division of the American Chemical Society, shared the story of her personal journey, including tips for becoming a successful leader in any organization:

  • Join a professional society and get involved
  • Develop your core leadership qualities
  • Develop your strengths
  • Seek opportunities to collaborate
  • Demonstrate your ability to innovate
  • Be proactive and not reactive
  • Find a mentor
  • Lead without authority

She also discussed characteristics "that differentiate outstanding leaders in corporate and many other organizational environments," including those related to personal capability, interpersonal skills, focusing on results and setting a clear direction, and overarching character competency, all recognized by the ACS as areas of core leadership competency.

Leadership in science education and communications

Leaders in science have a responsibility to promote their fields, not only in journals and patents, but also in popular opinion. Education, the media—and social media—can help drive understanding and acceptance of a scientific agenda. Dr. Frederic Bertley, President and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) shared:

Today we live in a global society that is ever-shrinking, primarily because of the ubiquitousness of cheap communication tools. At the same time, this same global society, which is explicitly dependent on science and technology—all a product of scientists and engineers—is becoming more and more scientifically illiterate.

This is where the next generation of scientists and engineers must play an expanded critical role. They must absolutely leave the hallowed halls of their laboratories, benches, workshops and classrooms, and step out in the community to engage, inspire and transform the public—exposing them to how interesting, cool, relevant and necessary their scientific and technological endeavors are. Moreover, they need to do this with a vocabulary and lexicon with which the lay public can understand, resonate and enjoy!

How to maximize the impact of science in the media? Rachel Feltman, Science Editor for Popular Science Magazine, shared tips on gaining visibility for research and conveying its goals and merits to journalists. She emphasized the need for scientists to develop communication skills that reach beyond scientific conversation, allowing them to highlight research findings to the public in an effective and compelling manner.

Leadership skills for the next generation of scientists

To stay ahead of the competition, organizations across sectors must understand the importance of leadership skills in their workforce, promoting and hiring researchers who are not only accomplished in their science, but also in their ability to lead research efforts in the laboratory and beyond.

For the next generation of scientists, leadership training is an essential part of a comprehensive career development plan. Learn more about this year’s program and the 2018 CAS SciFinder Future Leaders.