Leadership in Science

I went to hear Robert Langer from MIT speak at the Carolina Innovations Seminar tonight.  His bio spells out the awards and papers and degrees.  I followed a lot of the science, and most of the discussion that follow at the free-beer-and-pizza mixer after the speech.  It’s been a while since I was in the lab.  The science, while important and interesting, wasn’t really what caught my attention.

Dr. Langer mentioned 20 or 25 former post-docs and graduate students, and to a person, they were introduced as the “Endowed Chair of the XYZ Department of this major school” or “Dean of the School of Medicine at that prominent university” or CEO or CTO of a biotech company recently sold for $12B or …  I lost track.  If I’d known I was going to be writing about what he said, I would have taken better notes.

At the mixer afterward, a young man who had also noticed how Dr. Langer mentioned his former students wondered how all those smart people came to be in the same place.  I think it’s the other way around.  Those grad students and post-docs were successful because they were in that place, working with and being encouraged by a real leader, as opposed to someone who was merely the “director of the lab.”  Jack Welch had a similar effect on people who worked for him–more Fortune 500 CEOs came out of GE during his time at the company than from any other company ever.  Similarly, I recall reading that everyone at the top of GE had, at one time in their careers, worked for one man who sent each of them on to bigger jobs.

Is it that all the smart business people went to GE, and all the smart biotechies went to MIT?  To a certain extent, yes.  But I have also seen the opposite behavior.  I worked for a boss who, to the best of my recollection, never promoted anyone above himself.  I could have missed someone, of course; again, if I had known I would be writing about it these many years later, I would have kept better notes.

Dr. Langer mentioned that all the students whose grant applications were rejected in the course of tissue engineering progress had gone on to positions of significant influence in the field, while the people who rejected the applications were still reviewing, and rejecting, grants.  Funny how that turns out.  Most of us who didn’t get promoted have since left the company and gone on to interesting new opportunities.  I wonder how the manager explains that to himself?

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