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.
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.
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