America's Best Leaders: Q&A with Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH
Do you pattern your own leadership style after someone you particularly admire?
I mentioned Mark Hatfield above. I could also mention Harold Varmus, the former director of the NIH, who had a remarkable knack of leading by infusing every issue with scientific excitement. And I could mention Elias Zerhouni, the current director of NIH, who has combines scientific and entrepreneurial expertise with exceptional management abilities.
What would you tell a business school student who asked you what makes a great leader?
Determination, vision, persistence, and dedication to serve othersbut also the ability to derive joy from the work.
What's the primary thing you look for when you're hiring someone?
Scientific sophistication and exceptional people skills.
Jim Collins, who wrote Built to Last and Good to Great about companies that managed to achieve enduring greatness, has a discussion about whether those companies experienced "miracle moments"sudden breakthroughs that made them realize they had undergone a huge transformation. Did you have a miracle moment?
No miracle moments here.
Collins also endorses an idea he calls "The Council," which is some sort of formal mechanism within a company for reviewing past actions and debating future projects. Do you do this?
Absolutely! It's even called the Council! Specifically, the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research is my formal advisory board, populated with some of the most experienced genome scientists in the world, both from the public and private sectors. They are brash, feisty, opinionated, and nearly always right. And they've helped me make some bold plans and avoid some big mistakes over the last 12 years.
In which area of life do you see the greatest need for leadership today?
With so many areas of science raising societal, ethical, and religious questions, there is a great need for sober and reasoned leadership in these areasyet too often, the scientists are uncomfortable in such debates, and the professional ethicists or theologians sometimes don't know the science well enough to distinguish a real problem from a hypothetical one. We need more individuals who are equally at home in all of these areas, and we need to find better ways for them to be listened to.
With all the demands on your time, how do you organize your working day?
I am not a good role model here, but there doesn't seem to be much of a substitute for putting in the time. I probably work 90 hours a week on the average (but I'm not advocating for that lifestyle). I am fortunate to be surrounded by a truly remarkable staff, and I delegate a great deal of the work of the institute to them. I have frequent needs to travel to scientific meetings, but I make the most of electronic connections to keep up to date on what's going on. -Jamie Shreeve