Science and Leaders


Here at Palo Verde, in between orientation hikes, faculty-led field research projects, paper writing, statistics practice, community and diversity analysis, research seminars, and many deep conversations about life and science, we took some moments to think actively about what it is to be a good leader.

We all took personality tests and put together our ideas on how the mesh of personalities in a group can be made more or less effective by playing off of the strengths and weaknesses of each personality type. We talked as a group about strategies for dealing with time sinks and energy drainers. And we did an elegant activity, jotting down the traits that define our own role models as leaders. Each trait went on a post-it and then on the board.

We sorted the post-its in two categories. On the left we had the “hard skills”, those technical abilities that we spend so many years honing and studying in school. On the right we had the “soft skills” which are those things that have to do with our interpersonal relationships and personalities.

Sorting leadership traits between hard and soft categories.

Sorting leadership traits between hard and soft categories.

The results are in. Hard skills just don’t cut it as far as leadership skills that others admire in their own leaders.

We generated a diverse list of traits that we admire in our leaders (the number of people that wrote down a given trait is in parentheses). To me, the traits seemed to branch across five general categories, although many of the words could appear in more than one category:

1. Abilities: Experienced (2), organized (2), well-rounded (2), intelligent (4), capable, clear thinking, realistic, solves problems

2. Emotion: Compassionate (2), enthusiastic (2), passionate (2), understanding (2), caring (3), calm, empathetic, helpful, thoughtful

3. Working with groups: Trustworthy, thinks before speaking, resolves conflict, promotes cooperation, perceptive, open to suggestions, good teacher, constructive criticism, compliments good work, supportive (4), persuasive (3), patient (2), encouraging (2), collects input (2), deals with different people in different ways (2)

4. Public image: Articulate (2), direct (2), role model (2), inspiring (3), visionary (3), funny (4), charismatic (5), confident (5), fair, genuine, honest, motivates, relatable

5. Strength: Calls you out (2), decisive (2), pushes boundaries (3), driven (4), gets stuff done (4), demands excellence, fights for equality, speaks their mind, takes initiative, tenacious, unflappable

The take home message was clearly that being good at a particular technical skill (like modeling or using a piece of equipment), being faster than others, and knowing more than others are not the mechanisms for being a good leader. Instead, the better way to improve your leadership skills is to practice being better at interacting with others, at carefully portraying your strength and image, and at establishing your passion and experience in your area.

The activity sets the bar for us all to work on developing those soft skills while we’re in this intense situation in the course, and in our lives and careers, too. In the interest of creating science leaders, the question becomes: It is 97 degrees, 80% humidity, 138 mosquitoes buzzing around you, 3 hours of sleep, and 5 hours left to analyze your data and make your presentation…how do you choose to handle that guy that is being stubborn about doing it his way?


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