Let Your Researcher Thought Leaders Be Makers, Not Managers

 Scene from Mini Maker Faire, Melbourne 2012. Credit:  Ruth Ellison/Flickr CC

Scene from Mini Maker Faire, Melbourne 2012. Credit: Ruth Ellison/Flickr CC

I was talking to a former client about a scientist we had both worked with who had just moved to another organization. 

“I’m really happy for her,” I said about the scientist. “She’s finally going to get the chance to become a thought leader there. They’re really receptive to making that happen.”

“You know, she was a terrible manager here,” my former client replied.

I was stunned at the non sequitur. What did one have to do with the other? At first, it seemed petty and jealous.

Then I realized: My former client's response encapsulated perfectly one of the most common dilemmas so many research-driven organizations have in nurturing thought leaders and establishing thought-leading positions:

  • Assuming management responsibilities is the only way for one to advance one’s career at many of these organizations, which are resource-strapped.
  • So smart, creative researchers at these organizations become managers, often against their better instincts.
  • But researcher thought leaders aren’t often great managers. Or even if they are, they have to switch between two utterly opposed mindsets: 1) the researcher thought leader (which is about formulating and advancing research-based insights to help inform decisions, and necessarily involves building a personal brand); and 2) the manager (whose overriding responsibility is to develop her team into a high-performing unit). 
  • It’s a fundamental clash between being self-directed and being other-directed. Both roles are valuable. It’s very difficult for most individuals to do both justice. And since teams need to be managed and annual objectives need to be achieved, the manager's thought leadership suffers.
  • Even more important: my former client's response (“She was a terrible manager here”) told me that his organization’s culture would not allow him to see that the two roles could be equally valuable. At his organization, thought leadership by anyone below the executive team was discouraged, and value was strictly about teams executing top-down plans.

This is why fostering thought leadership within an organization is so much more than training your staff how to tweet and how to pivot back to messages in media interviews. You need a thorough evaluation of all your blockers — cultural and structural as well as deficiencies in staff knowledge, skills and abilities — in order to unleash the organization's full potential as a market leader.

I deal over and over with clients who want thought leaders and then ask those thought leaders to sit on committees, sit on endless conference calls, pitch in to complete program evaluations or surveys, or fly everywhere for pointless meetings. 

If you think this kind of division of labor will work, read this interview with astrophysicist Mario Livio, author of the book "Why? What Makes Us Curious." He was invited to give a TEDx MidAtlantic talk — not even a TED talk proper — and spent six months exploring the topic of curiosity to prepare the talk that eventually became the book.

Thought leadership requires a maker’s schedule and mindset, not a manager’s schedule and mindset, to borrow the dichotomy first defined by YCombinator’s Paul Graham. Asking your thought leaders to inhabit both is unfair.

So clear as many management responsibilities from your thought leaders’ plates as possible so they can focus on creating the kind of high-value content your donors, potential partners, policymaking targets and other key audiences demand. 

So they can deliver maximum strategic value to your organization — not be just another manager.

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Bob Lalasz

Bob Lalasz is founder & principal of Science+Story, which guides research-driven organizations to maximize their thought leadership potential and programs.