America's Best Leaders: Q&A with Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH
Who is the leader past or present who has most inspired you?
I have been fortunate to know many, both in science and in other areas of life. Historically, I am awed by the example of William Wilberforce, the member of the House of Commons who spent 42 years on the effort to abolish slavery in Britain. His efforts were mostly greeted with ridicule and derision by his colleagues, but just three days before his death a bill was finally passed to accomplish this. In terms of living individuals, the one that stands out most for me is Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, whose dedication to serving others and healing the great wounds of apartheid stands out as truly heroic. Another is former Sen. Mark Hatfield. When I first came to NIH to lead the Human Genome Project, he took the time out of an incredibly busy schedule to meet with me on multiple occasions. His unabashed commitment to ideals about how science and government should be conducted, his devotion to excellence in all things, his personal warmth, and his deep religious faith were inspiring to be near to.
Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar and chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, says, "Everybody agrees that there is less leadership today than there used to be." Do you agree? Why or why not?
I don't think such sweeping generalizations about a topic as complex as leadership can be easily defended. Surely, the truth or falsehood of the statement depends on the particular discipline? And on the part of the world being evaluated? I am happy to say that I perceive no paucity of leadership in science right now. But there are challenges in being heard.
Leaders are rarely, if ever, exceptional in every way. And they need not be. But the great leaders know that their deficiencies can't be ignored. What are yours? And how do you address them?
My deficiencies are numerous. I am terribly impatient. When I can see an exciting opportunity to advance science and medicine, I expect everyone around me to share the same dedication and passion that I feeland that sometimes leads me to make optimistic assumptions about how easy it will be to break down barriers. I dislike confrontation. I am not always willing to delegate leadership of a scientific project, if I'm convinced that I know just how it should be done. I am not good at saying "No," and that sometimes leads to a schedule that is too packed with mundane commitments to allow adequate time for big-picture thinking. My way of dealing with all these deficiencies is to surround myself with exceptional people and to give them explicit permission to point out when I am getting off course. My greatest fear as a leader is that those around me will be afraid to disagree with me or to tell me bad news.
Great leaders take risks; therefore, they make mistakes. Tell us about one of yours (the bigger, the better!) and how, as any great leader would, you used it as an opportunity to improve.