Becoming a Life Sciences Leader – Challenges and solutions to making the transition from scientist to leader

October 21st, 2011 | 7 Comments

Most life science leaders begin their careers as scientists. Often, they are selected as managers on the basis of their scientific expertise, their wise decision making and their clear communication skills. Once they enter a leadership role, the focus of their career changes from scientific accomplishment to facilitating accomplishment in others.

This transition can be challenging because of the strong appeal of science. The palpable pleasure of having the right answer tempts these scientist-leaders to take the floor in meetings. And the security of technical knowledge pulls them back to the science and away from leading people. The most successful leaders grow past this pull by learning the skills of leadership with the same rigor that they learned their scientific skills decades earlier. They consciously focus on conversations that bring out the ideas of others, and resist inserting too many of their own ideas.

The transition involves a shift in mind-set and values as well as in behavior, altering one’s identity from that of scientist to that of a leader. In many ways the two mind-sets (competent scientist and effective leader) are not just different, but actually antithetical.  They require a shift in personal identity from being “the smartest person in the room”, to asking questions that help others to be smart. Effective life sciences leaders value the behind-the-scenes work of leadership, while enabling the scientists they lead to gain the recognition from the new discovery or the great experimental result. 

Several skills characterize the effective life sciences leader. 

  1. Eliciting wisdom and innovation from others through dialogue. At the core of this skill are conversations in which the leader asks about the scientists’ ideas, and builds on them to enhance their applicability.
  2. Asking questions that help scientists trace the roots of their thinking, enabling them to refine their idea in order to better match it to the challenge at hand. 
  3. Reframing the ideas of scientists to best exploit their particular scientific niche or address a specific business challenge.


Through these skills, the leader develops the competence of scientists and creates new mind-sets.  These are much more important leadership outcomes than simply managing behaviors!

Mastering the skills we’ve described may seem daunting at first.  The good news is that these skills are learnable and the attitudes acquirable through a learning and development process – a process in which scientists who are leaders of scientists are guided through a shift in their own intrinsic reward systems and their sense of professional identity.  They discover the satisfaction of being a facilitator rather than a doer. As they assume this new role, they observe themselves bringing out the best in others.  In short, this learning model addresses the many and complex facets of scientific leadership, accelerating skill development, while assuring personal comfort with this new role.

To summarize, the challenge of transitioning from scientific thought leader to a leader of scientists is, without doubt, challenging, in large part because it represents a fundamental shift in mind-set. However, this transition can be reinforced and accelerated through structured learning and coaching activities.  

We’re interested in hearing about your own leadership journey and experience with others you’ve known who were similarly engaged.  Consider the following questions (or pose your own) and let us know what you think:

  1. What about this rings true for you?
  2. If you’ve made this transition, how did it happen?  Who/what influenced you?
  3. What were the 2-3 most important leadership skills you learned – the ones that really made the difference in you becoming a good leader?
  4. What was most challenging for you in the transition from “scientist” to “leader”?
  5. What did you have to let go of to make this transition work?
  6. What about becoming a great leader has made the shift worthwhile?

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