Why Being A Great Scientist Makes It So Hard To Be A Great Leader

Why Being A Great Scientist Makes It So Hard To Be A Great Leader

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Why Being A Great Scientist Makes It So Hard To Be A Great Leader

Sarah is a PhD research scientist with experience in academia and the biotech industry along with almost 10 years of experience working within and leading teams in the pharmaceutical industry. She was originally trained as a coach by AstraZeneca in 2012, so experienced the power and potential of coaching science leaders as she developed her skill.

It’s not just you

Do you beat yourself up about your leadership skills? You probably wish you had more authority and impact, particularly with your peers and seniors? I’m guessing you’re familiar with the frustration of not speaking up then hearing someone else say what was on your mind? Making decisions is hard; difficult conversations are hard; saying no is impossible, as is admitting that you’re over-whelmed. 

The list goes on and on before we even get started on the problem of keeping on top of all the science. What does the latest paper say? What are your competitors up to? Your collaborators? Dare we even admit that keeping up with what your team is up to is a challenge? It’s no wonder you feel overwhelmed and exhausted. How will you ever establish authority if you don’t know the science?

You look around you and everyone else seems to manage it, so you feel like a failure for struggling to cope.

Why Being A Great Scientist Makes It So Hard To Be A Great Leader

Let me reassure you. 

Firstly, everyone else isn’t coping. Lots of people in your position feel the way you do. 

I know this because I talk to them, and because I’ve been there. 

Secondly, I want you to know this really isn’t your fault! The very training and experience that got you where you are now is what makes it so very difficult to cope with being a leader in the industry of science. 

Finally, it doesn’t have to feel this way. There is a way to step up in your leadership role without feeling so overwhelmed and overworked.

It’s all in the science

Ok, so it helps to know you’re not the only one, although I’m guessing that you’re still questioning that, and believing that everyone else really is coping better than you? Well that’s another blog! For now let’s pursue the science behind why this is such a common struggle for science leaders. 

The first piece of science is in how our brains work. 

Fellow neuroscientists please forgive this simple analogy! I use it because it’s incredibly powerful. Your brain is a huge complexity of neural connections. Imagine those connections as paths through a field. If the paths aren’t used much they soon become overgrown. It’s difficult to find and use them, progress is slow. Paths used frequently become firm, hard ground and easy to walk, run or even cycle over. So they get used even more, and the overgrown paths get used less. 

Your brain is the same. The neural pathways you use most are the ones that are easiest and fastest for the brain to use. They transmit signals more quickly than the less used pathways, so their messages dominate your mind. The next piece of science relates to the neural pathways you used frequently as a scientist.

The well-worn paths of the successful scientist

There are several skills you developed as a young scientist that get in the way of you being a great leader. In this article I’m going to focus on what I experience to be the top two. 

First, you’re trained to be highly critical; to develop techniques and skills to find errors. You actively search for data that don’t fit; weaknesses in protocols; assumptions and alternative interpretations. You achieved success because you were always looking to see what could be improved. You had to keep asking “what’s missing?” because that’s what reviewers and competitors do.

The well-worn paths of the successful scientist

Second, you’re expected to know more about your work than anyone else. “Remember you’re the expert, no-one knows more about this than you” is one of the most reassuring yet damaging things a supervisor says to a young scientist. Being an expert authority in your field became your status, earning you respect, opportunities and your job. When you felt nervous about a presentation you gained confidence by making sure you thought about every possible question so you didn’t ever have to say “I don’t know”. It became a comfort blanket, and they are tough to give up.


These thoughts and skills have become fast pathways in your brain. Seeing them written down you may already be seeing how unhelpful they are now you want to be a respected leader of people and strategy.

The Path To Leadership

When you move into leadership, because you’re no longer critiquing your own data your brain looks for new ways to exercise the “error spotting” pathways. This often manifests as micro-management and/or a highly self-critical nature. 

Micro-management saps your time and energy. Getting stuck in the detail distracts you from strategic thinking. It also stifles and frustrates your team. Most humans are naturally self-critical but in scientists that internal critic is highly trained and fast. This leads to self-doubt, struggling to make decisions, second guessing yourself and thinking everyone else is doing better than you. 

When you add in the desire to retain the expert status the impact can be crippling. You don’t want to be wrong, so you don’t want to say something that might be wrong. And if you haven’t read all the papers how can you be sure you’re right? Better to not say anything at all, which of course fuels the self-doubt. All of this leads to stress and anxiety when you work in an environment that expects you to get it right. 

Can you see how the old paths are making life difficult for you? 

So how do you get on a new path that will move you to being a calm and confident leader that can cope with change and uncertainty? Well, recognising these things and understanding where they can come from is the first step in letting them go.

The Path To Leadership​

Remember the path analogy. Whenever you find yourself walking the scientist path remind yourself that you want to try the leadership path, and know that each time you do makes it easier to do the next time.

If you relate to this and want to know more, then connect with me on LinkedIn where you can also follow my personal hashtag (#leadersinflow) which will guide you to my posts where I share insights and advice about the challenges you face.

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