America's Best Leaders: Q&A with J. Craig Venter, president of J. Craig Venter Institute
The biggest mistakes I've made is when I've refused to pay attention to my intuition. When I followed it, things have always worked. It's when I try to rationalize that I get into trouble. In Star Trek terms, I can be too Spock-like in my thinking.
A great leader stays the course. At what moments has this been particularly difficult for you? And how did you keep your resolve?
It's easy to be a leader when everything is working. The challenges are when there are attacks and doubts and the solution is not obvious. The toughest time at Celera was in the spring and early summer of 1999, when we couldn't get the DNA sequencers to work, at the same time that some of the nastiest attacks from the public-program scientists were taking place. The combination of those two pressures was causing everybody on my team to question the sanity of what we were doing. At times I was reduced to tears of frustration. Such times force you to look into your inner core to see how much you believe yourself in what you're doing. The important thing was not lose sight of the goal. That made it possible for me to make other people believe that what we were doing really was possible. And because they believed, they made it happen.
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.
A key part of how I worked was to inspire the leaders of the four major scientific teams at Celera to rise to another level of leadership themselves. It was tremendously satisfying to watch them take charge. It made me feel part of the big team as well.
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?
You have to have elements you're born with. During high school I could inspire my low-life friends to do some pretty bad things, if you call that leadership. I remember in fifth grade, the principal got really p- at me for something I was doing. She literally shook me, saying, "You're a natural leader. People are going to follow you, so you have to behave properly. Your misbehaving is causing more problems than your own misbehavior." So I guess I had something to begin with. But true leaders are made by their circumstances and life experiences. Many fail who have great potential because they are undone by some character flaw. Nixon was a great leader undone by his paranoia. This goes back to why you have so few leaders today: You have to make some snap decisions with long-term consequences. A lot of leadership is doing the right things at the right moment, like Rudy Giuliani after September 11.
Do you pattern your own leadership style after someone you particularly admire?