• Corey Scholes

Bringing order to the chaos-box: Leadership and management in science

This is the written form of a presentation I gave to EBMA staff at our office in Sydney, Australia in August 2017. It is intended as a primer for an ongoing program of development and training for our team in the art and science of leadership and management in what we do. I have modified the content in places as my own understanding has developed over time.


Why is this important and who am I to talk about it?


Practice of science in any discipline in this age is one of teamwork and collaboration. The sheer volume of data available for collection and analysis in a range of fields is immense and the techniques to collect, analyse and interpret the findings continue to evolve. In medicine, and particularly orthopaedics, the clinical problems that we are tasked with solving are often multidisciplinary in nature and require the minds of many to provide true insight and workable solutions. For this reason, researchers and scientists need to be comfortable working in a team-based environment and must understand the dynamics of how teams achieve outcomes that surpass what is possible as individuals. Specifically for our organisation, we are in a fluctuating period of development and we need robust systems in place to handle rapid change and time-sensitive activities. The hot tip is that leadership and management of the team are key ingredients for success.

My story in this area is somewhat of an oddity in some respects. I was the first in my family to attend university, but not the first to serve in the defence force. As I came near to the end of my postgraduate studies in exercise science, whether my dire employment prospects at the time contributed to the decision will always be up for debate, I enlisted in the army as a reservist and qualified as an infantry platoon commander. As my civilian career developed at the same time as I was working through army leadership training, I had a unique opportunity to apply many of the principles that I learnt to leading and managing small research teams in the orthopaedic domain. It may be surprising to some, but science and military operations share many characteristics - they can be financially ruinous endeavours, are highly unpredictable and depend a lot on the quality of the people involved to achieve what is required.


Where do we start?


An important step in this process is reflecting on what you are looking to gain from developing as a leader. To kick off this process of reflection and at the risk of being cheesy, I'm going to start with a scene from an average action movie, that received a 48% Rotten Tomatoes rating - Battle Los Angeles (the first 1:30) to illustrate how a team may work together and the key ingredients it uses to respond to a situation. As a teaching tool, it is a great movie for an insight into a few of the dynamics at work in a small team and particularly the interaction between different generations within the workplace. If you can sit through it, I would recommend it for this aspect. Activity 1 - For this scene, note what behaviours the team demonstrates, particularly when things go sideways and also how key decisions were made (who, what, when, where). See if you can pick who is in charge by the end of the first 90 seconds, but hang on for longer if its not clear.


It's all about the definitions


If you're still with me, you'll hopefully have picked up that leadership was possibly a key factor that got the team out of a tricky situation in that scene. Let's toss around some key definitions at this point, as I think a number of articles and posts on this topic do readers a disservice by not separating out key functions. In particular, conflating leadership with management and vice versa, appears to be a common approach in the blogging space. It is very important to understand that they are related but not the same thing. Leadership can be defined as influencing and directing people to willingly achieve a team goal. Whereas management is maximising task-related output of team members within available resource constraints. They are fundamentally different activities, and while one person can do both roles in certain contexts, it is like using a convertible sports car to run a concreting business. It can be done, but its probably not the best use of its features.


Leadership has also been described as a projection of personality and I would fully agree with this. The leader engages, motivates and builds/maintains relationship inside and outside of the team. The actions of a team leader can be broadly described as:

  • Establishing direction

  • Aligning the team

  • Developing the potential of team members

  • Motivating the team to overcome hurdles


In contrast, management budgets and tracks to a carefully considered plan. A manager organises and establishes structures, while worrying about control of actions, expenditure and solving problems. In my experience, leadership and management are mutually supportive but are not interchangeable. The manager requires strong leadership to ensure that a team is organised and prepared for tasks that the leader requires to enact an endstate that exists only as a vision. Similarly, the leader must be connected to and able to undertake management functions, particularly when planning for future activities. The manager and the leader are working hard on different aspects of the task and the team throughout a task cycle. For example, while the leader is planning for a task to be achieved, the manager is working just as hard ensuring that each team member is prepared, administered with the right tools to complete the upcoming job. Without this separation and concurrent activity, in many environments, one person performing leadership and management roles simultaneously can quickly burn out even the most enthusiastic among us.


The Dynamic Leadership Model


How this all fits together is a natural question at this point, and its important to realise that leadership and management are complex concepts and activities that occur in a range of complex environments. The absolute no-frills takeaway that I want to convey is that any model of leadership is dynamic and must adapt to a number of prevailing conditions, which I've attempted to capture below. But ultimately, the mix of these factors, of which the leader's characteristics and behaviour is an important part, must lead to task outcomes and the quality of relationships both inside and outside the team. The effective leader demonstrates qualities and behaviour that maximises outcomes in the context of the i) the condition of the team and the proficiency of its members ii) the broader context and environment iii) the amount of support the leader can draw on from the organisation and iv) the specific constraints and expectations relevant to the task. While there is countless references to leadership approaches, styles or other secret sauces, the crucial aspect is that the factors that support leadership, shape its effectiveness and also impact on outcomes will shift and change from one moment to the next. The final point to note from the diagram is that other factors sit between the leader and their team and must be mitigated to build an effective relationship between the two.


Relationships and projecting personality


With a reasonable definition of leadership in hand, let's turn to how that relationship between leader and the team is established. Importantly, how does a leader start to translate a vision for what his/her superior wants to occur into actions that the team carries out? A key concept that can be translated from military experience is that of command and control, with command being the authority and responsibility within an organisation to use available resources (including people) to accomplish directed tasks. While control refers to the methods of effectively converting organisational intentions to individual or team actions, with the results compared to the desired endstate. For those playing at home, you may have picked up on similar terms to our management definition starting to sneak back into our leadership discussion. Activity 2 - note down for yourself how management systems and managers support this command and control process. One approach to communicating this is known as mission command. In the interest of space, I will leave the link to explain the details of this method, but will highlight how it can be used in our context. That is, the leader of a team identifies the following:

  • The intent of the organisation

  • A required endstate

  • The task(s) required to achieve the endstate

  • Key constraints that determine the parameters of the work


A team member receiving this information makes their own interpretation of their leader's intent; identifies and reports any additional constraints that were missed and decides for themselves the most appropriate method to achieve the desired outcome. This method works well in a scientific context as often the team members have greater domain expertise than a team leader on specific sub-tasks and sometimes more experience in the specific methodology applied. Also, a productive scientific or research team is typically staffed with qualified people with advanced degrees in a range of technical and non-technical domains. They are quite capable of, and respond well to, the opportunity to contribute to the larger picture.


The secret herbs and spices


So far we've identified that the leader of a team needs to set direction, align the team and more broadly (usually over time), is responsible for building and managing the team. To allow an approach such as mission command in this context to deliver its benefits fully, there are certain concepts that need to be kept in mind. These include the following that equally apply to team members and the leader:

  • Trust

  • Loyalty

  • Competence

  • Credibility

  • Style and behaviour

  • Individual Traits


The items on this list are not exhaustive, but they are interdependent - without one the others are difficult to achieve to a minimum standard for success. How these are built and maintained is worthy of its own post, but the main point here is that the leader has a lot to do, and how they build and maintain relationships with both their team and key stakeholders is a key contributor to success.


Where there's style...


The internet is awash with helpful (and some not so helpful) posts on styles of leadership and key traits of effective leaders. I want to stress that many of these articles are misleading in that one style is not appropriate for every single situation and there is no one trait or mix of traits that guarantee success in the dynamic interaction of determinant factors that we've covered so far (refer back to diagram). As a starting point, refer to the diagram above for a non-exhaustive list of traits that are associated with effective leadership. Having said that, we can string some relationships between how a person responds to some of these factors and their approach and style to interacting with team members and other stakeholders. For example, a time-sensitive task in a high-pressure environment can often lead to a directive, confrontational style in some people with traits that lend themselves to such behaviour. While everyone can relate to a horrible boss at some stage in their working life, these traits are not necessarily bad in every situation, but should be adapted appropriately. Conversely, traits that are considered 'good' in most people may also not be appropriate and can lead to poor task outcomes or become detrimental to relationships in some circumstances.


The key takeaway here is how a leader relates to the team and positions themselves relative to team members at various stages of a task cycle has a considerable impact on outcomes in my own experience and in the experience of others (see reference list for examples). These can be broadly described as styles and may be more familiar as common cliches 'lead from the front', or 'the chateau general'. I've generated a diagram below to illustrate how these may vary, but depend greatly on the systems available for control, the environment and task context. For example, the top right diagram illustrates the 'lead from the front' approach, while bottom left lends itself to a more 'lead from behind', supportive approach. Both have their place in certain contexts in my experience and the challenge is to become better at matching different styles to the most appropriate situations over time.


Bring in the managers


Since we've covered some (but not all) the fundamentals of leadership that I think are important to build an understanding of this process, I'm going to swing back to the management side and emphasise a few key concepts. Firstly, management in my opinion requires equally strong leadership to do well, but with a slightly different end-goal to the team leader, separated in time within a task cycle. For example, the manager must motivate and cajole his/her team to return their administration (e.g. pay forms) to be ready in time for the next task commencement. In most work situations this is not easy for anyone to organise or achieve quickly and the manager must display many of the same qualities for success. One of the key management functions and a manager in this position is to provide a feedback loop to the leader in the context of mission command. That is, the manager is asked the questions on the non exhaustive list below:

  • Is the team in the best condition to carry out the assigned task?

  • Are individuals matched to sub-tasks appropriately?

  • Have all resources been allocated within constraints?

  • Are team members returning maximum output to achieve the goal?

  • Is the team operating efficiently and/or harmoniously?


Activity 3 - based on these concepts describe whether the behaviours and traits you would look for in a manager are the same as a team leader.


Activity 4 - Identify how team management might support leadership during a single task/objective. List how two people with these separate roles would work together to achieve their respective functions within the team.


The world of leadership in EBM Analytics... according to me


With some foundation concepts in hand, I wanted to redirect this discussion back to our organisation and why this is important for everyone that works with us. The nature of our work lends itself to uncertainty, confusion and gaps in knowledge. It is our business to apply systems and processes to areas of poor understanding in orthopaedic and sports medicine to enable clinicians to look after people better. There will be situations where every individual will be called upon to draw on their experiences and character to make the right decision. It is my intention through this series of presentations to ensure everyone feels supported in that process and understands the systems in place to support them. In the right circumstances, I'm hopeful that thinking about leadership and management will empower each of us to support others in their work.


I wanted to incorporate some final commentary from my experiences about what it means to be a leader and its distinction from a competent individual team member. A few misconceptions I've aimed to dispel are that there is a rigid leadership structure and style that everyone must conform to be effective. In a similar vein, the notion that there is a specific 'type' of leader that looks and acts in a certain way is also not true. I have been guilty on occasions of prejudging the performance of others based on their looks or past behaviour, which has had no correlation with their success as a leader or the output of their team. The only judge of effective leadership is the task outcomes and relationships both inside and outside of the team, within and at the end of a task cycle. Everything else that a leader may be judged on is largely superfluous. The figure below illustrates the diversity of the most effective leaders from history, and if you are keen for inspiration, try looking up their stories. There are many tangible rewards to be a leader at any level within an organisation. These include, but are not limited to, witnessing the wonder of human achievement and watching individuals and teams develop over time. The knowledge that you have contributed to this process can also be a strong motivator. The ability to conceptualise and practice leadership is also a catalyst for a diverse and fulfilling career path, and success in these roles, particularly for a scientist or researcher expands our understanding of what the frontiers are in our knowledge and what is possible.


Still here? Ok, great!


If you're still with me at this point, I think I've either piqued your interest or you have some tangible aspirations to lead others in our domain. If so, I couldn't be happier and I'm looking forward to seeing the results of your hard work over time. Nevertheless, here are a few points and expectations from me for those that put their hand up to lead others. Firstly, neither leadership or management are 'sometimes' roles, you must be ready to live the dream. A corollary to this is that team timings (start, end, breaks) no longer match yours. You will be expected to do the work before and after your team members are on deck to ensure that they are supported, resourced and directed to perform their roles effectively. In reality this will mean you will be displaced from your team at times and be working a different schedule to them. Secondly, team output is everything, your team's mistakes are your failings and their successes are theirs alone. Leadership isn't unidirectional most of the time, you must be willing to build your team, know them and train yourself out of a job as you develop them over time. The realities of leadership shape your transition from team member to leader and it's important to keep in mind that it isn't just an extension of your previous job with more status. It is an entirely different role with a range of expectations, demands and opportunities.


From here, note some of your own key lessons, what resonated strongly in a positive or negative way and what would you do differently? Identify some key gaps in the concepts above that I haven't addressed at all or discussed in insufficient detail. The next opportunity to apply some of these topics will be in a full-day, hands-on activity planned for the following fortnight. In the meantime, you can have a look at this article on leadership in science and Activity 6 - describe an example of leadership in STEM in a team setting and as an individual.