America's Best Leaders: Q&A with J. Craig Venter, president of J. Craig Venter Institute
Who is the leader past or present who has most inspired you?
Certainly, Bill Clinton, for a number of reasons. For his raw intellect and charisma, but also for the way he coped with constantly being attacked. He had a way of responding to the most raw, nasty attack that was gracious and dismissive at the same. Another person I would put up there is Nelson Mandela. I don't think I could have survived those years in prison like he did. You don't know if you could until it happens, but I don't want to find out. And to come out of that ordeal and go on to inspire others with his life, that's phenomenal leadership. He's one of the people in my life I'm really excited to have met. Recently I've come to admire the first President Bush, who showed remarkable leadership in his handling of Iraq and not getting us involved there. In retrospect, it was one of his wisest decisions.
Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar and the 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 think it's harder to be a great leader today, in part just because of the general skepticism people have with anybody at that level. The immediate assumption is that a person in power has ulterior motives, no matter what they're doing. But perhaps it's a healthy skepticism. Our government system now seems to be comprised of warring parties, not leaders who are seeking the best long-term interests of the country. In politics, people can't see beyond the next election, and on Wall Street, they can't see beyond the next financial quarter. To make wise decisions, you need a planning horizon beyond the next election or next quarter.
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.
The list is way too long for this article! We're all human. I haven't met anybody who I thought should be cloned because they were a perfect human, and I doubt that they exist. I have different flaws depending on the circumstance. Part of working outside the box, outside the establishment, is that to some extent you have to be willing to fight, to take on anything. If I weren't competitive, at times combative, I wouldn't have accomplished anything. But at times my competitiveness and combativeness can be my own worst enemy. In the depths of the competition, I start wanting to truly defeat who I'm competing with, rather than keeping focused on what needs to be accomplished. Also, the fact that attacks bother me, bothers me.
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 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?
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