America's Best Leaders: Q&A with J. Craig Venter, president of J. Craig Venter Institute
What would you tell a business school student who asked you what makes a great leader?
Somebody who is not afraid to take risks. I put risk-taking way up there. On the other hand, the Darwin Awards are full of people who take risks too, so you have to be able to distinguish a promising risk from a fool's errand. Leaders also have to have an intuitive ability to assess situations and inspire others.
What's the primary thing you look for when you're hiring someone?
Intelligence and the ability to self-motivate.
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?
The short answer is no. But there were some pretty dramatic moments. One was when it was clear we'd succeeded in assembling the fruit fly genome and we knew our method was going to work. The other was when we actually had the human genome paper put together and accepted in Science. Those were sense-of-completion moments, but we didn't know whether things would work until we did it. I don't like the term "miracle," but there were critical make-or-break moments.
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?
I have a counsel, but it could only be described as a kitchen cabinet. Key individuals whom I trust implicitly, and truly want their input.
In which area of life do you see the greatest need for leadership today?
The place most lacking is in our government. There are some very key long-term strategic decisions that have to be made, and we have to overcome the short-sightedness of the next election cycle.
With all the demands on your time, how do you organize your working day?
I would drive a time management consultant totally insane. I work to prioritize issues. There is a constant battle between things that are important to me and things scheduled by others that have to be done. Lately, I make a list as I get older. At the end of the day there's still a lot on the list. I have a staff wto help do these things, but there's so much stuff to get through. I remember when I used to go home and watch TV. No more. Things don't stop. There's rarely a time when I'm not thinking about what I'm doing professionally, what needs to be worked on. It's a rare event where I can totally abandon that. -Jamie Shreeve