America's Best Leaders: Q&A with Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH
The Human Genome Project was international from the start. Once or twice I failed to adequately recognize this and managed to offend my colleagues in other countries. On one particular occasion, Sir John Sulston of the U.K. complained about a unilateral decision I had made, comparing it to "friendly fire." I had to apologize and spend some serious time building the bridge again. Fortunately, the bridge was even stronger as a result, and I learned a critical lesson about sharing decisions with your partners.
A great leader stays the course. At what moments has this been particularly difficult for you? And how did you keep your resolve?
During the so-called race to sequence the human genome, many forces began to align to convince the administration and the Congress to cut the funding for the public project, arguing that this could be better done in the private sector. The importance of keeping the data in the public domain was not always realized. Most hurtful of all, some critics implied that any project being supported by the government was bound to be slow, bureaucratic, and inefficient. Nothing could have been further from the truth; this project was being conducted in our finest academic institutions by some of the brightest and best of the current generation of scientists. Worn down by this constant barrage, even some members of the public-project team began to question whether the work could be completed successfully. There were several occasions where I had to "rally the troops" or even make an emergency visit to a leader who was losing his or her enthusiasm. Those moments were alarming, but I never lost my own resolvethe goal of reading out the human genome sequence was just too important.
Great leaders empower others to become leaders themselves. Give us an example of how you knew you had succeeded in this important and very satisfying role.
I'm not sure how much of this I have accomplishedbut I will cite one example that I feel quite happy about. In 1998, Huanming Yang, a genomic scientist from Beijing, approached me about whether China could join the Human Genome Project. The work was already well underway in other countries, and China was way behind the curve. But Huanming was very earnest and convinced me that China's involvement would represent a major advance for his country. The Beijing Genome Center came onboard, and China quite effectively sequenced 1 percent of the genome. Huanming is now one of the best-known scientists in China, and he has used this position quite effectively to build the scientific discipline of genomics there. I am proud to have been one of his mentors.
It is said that great leaders are made and not born. And yet history shows that many of the world's great leaders believed they were destined for the job. Where do you fit?
I had absolutely no clue about anything of the sort. Growing up on a small farm, getting excited about science in high school, learning to be a physician and a researcher, I had no inkling of being called to a major leadership role until I was in my 40s.