Lab Leadership in a Crisis
Read Professor Toni Vidal-Puig's reflections on lab leadership in full below.
Toni Vidal-Puig is Professor of Molecular Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Cambridge, Associate Director at the Medical Research Council, and an Honorary Consultant in Metabolic Medicine at the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
He has forged strong research links with China; he is also a Professor at Nanjing University, and Programme Leader on Obesity at the Cambridge University Nanjing Centre of Technology and Innovation.
In 2015, Toni completed an Executive MBA at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.
How will lab leadership change in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in more people working from home, fewer people working in the laboratory, changes in the pattern of scientific interactions, physical barriers to direct communication, all in a context of anxiety and uncertainty about the present and the future. These difficulties are causing mental health problems, frustration, anger, and disengagement. However, this turbulent time has also enabled new, unexpected leaders to emerge, performing more autonomously and making insightful decisions. This period has provided them with opportunities to show their character, determination and resilience when confronted with challenges.
The uncertainty, disruption, and complexity are challenging for the leader or manager in our laboratories. It requires even more sophistication to lead a highly competitive, heterogeneous group with different cultural backgrounds, roles, needs and expectations. Management of a research team or institution has its specific challenges, if we consider that this is a community of knowledge formed by intelligent, creative, technically gifted experts with high expectations and sometimes, big egos.
In a crisis context, leading a lab with autocratic leadership styles such as exerting absolute power or controlling the decisions and procedures may be tempting. It may be justified for a short period to solve an acute operational or financial situation. However, in the context of a sustained crisis such as the one we are facing, the autocratic leader will undoubtedly struggle to keep their "kingdom" under strict control, requiring much energy and still losing opportunities. Similarly, leaders with a transactional directive style using rewards and penalties, carrots and sticks, as incentives might reach their goals, but they will achieve nothing more than their goals as their laboratories will not go beyond their transactional obligations. This approach may work if the laboratory's success depends on many repetitive processes without requiring innovation, and will serve laboratory members that value the security provided by a relatively rigid environment over their scientific autonomy. In my experience, this approach alienates the entrepreneurial, troubleshooting-type of scientists who place high value on creativity and a sense of ownership. The transactional approach also requires strict control, which is problematic given the decrease in direct contact and the decrease in trust.
At first, times of crisis propel the emergence of charismatic leadership from magnetic personalities, which initially helps unite a team and can be useful when laboratory members feel lost and disoriented. However, when the crisis is sustained and requires continuous adaption to a changing landscape, the charismatic leader will generally struggle. The frequent changes are easily perceived as lack of competency of the charismatic leader, seeding doubts in the team, aggravated by a sense of lack of control in the direction and decisions.
Another type of leadership jeopardized by the all the uncertainty of pandemic is the bureaucratic leadership, typically leading by the book according to hierarchical authority as by defined rules and processes. The "we've always done it this way" no longer works because the context of the current crisis is different and now requires a more flexible approach that takes advantage of the lab or institution members' high talent, creativity, or innovative ideas to overcome the uncertainty and limited information.
The alternative is not a "laissez faire", hands-off leadership approach where the leader's role is simply to provide the necessary tools and resources. This approach promotes creativity and innovation but requires significant maturity in the team. It is also not suited for members at the early stages of development. However, it is undoubtedly suitable for independent senior technologist specialists or emerging future leaders in the lab who need to make decisions in times of uncertainty without excessive supervision.
Leaders with a more participative, democratic style will also perform better in the Covid-19 pandemic. However, their emphasis on working together and involving the whole team in decision making may not be very efficient or cost-effective when rapid decisions are required, particularly when communication with the whole laboratory depends on virtual connectivity.
The flexibility and operational changes required in the laboratories during the pandemic are a unique opportunity for transformational leadership, enabling innovation by empowering the laboratory members to own their work and make informed decisions. This type of leadership cannot be improvised. It requires a culture of trust in the team, an awareness of the vision and mission of the laboratory and the institute, and transparency in dissemination of information so the lab members can make informed decisions that benefit the laboratory. This approach will inevitably produce errors but also will increase learning and improve the outcome. An Agency problem is always a risk but is outweighed by the potential benefits of being innovative, agile and increasing the lab's competitiveness despite an element of financial uncertainty.
In a crisis, the people in the team have increased needs and increased vulnerability. Ignoring this situation is ethically questionable, and will damage the trust and morale of a laboratory. It is essential to embrace the servant-leader approach, prioritising the laboratory members' needs and providing help to the people. The laboratory members will appreciate this effort and redefine the laboratory's culture for a more solid future.
For me, the critical challenges for a leader during crisis conditions are a) being self-aware of a natural style that may be ingrained in their genes and modulated by their previous experiences, and b) being aware and connected to the team they are leading. I do not think the leader should function with a single leadership mode despite being more comfortable with specific styles. The sophisticated leader should be receptive and flexible enough to move through different styles according to the different contexts and individuals involved. Flexibility to adapt to change is essential but should not be at the expense of consistency and genuine empathy.
The pandemic crisis is challenging and requires a more sophisticated leadership approach in our laboratories. It is also an opportunity to reshape leadership practices towards a more participative leadership that takes advantage of the high potential of lab members to promote their competitiveness while creating a supportive, non-toxic environment.