The Top 10 Qualities of Scientist (Communicator) Leaders

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Nancy Baron (COMPASS Science Outreach Director) shares the key traits that define leaders in science. What’s the top quality that most sets them apart from their peers? Their expert ability to communicate.

Over the past 12 years as a communication trainer for the Leopold Leadership Program, and as a coach for many scientists, I have observed an intrinsic link between communication and leadership.  As I wrote in a past Nature Comment:

It’s no coincidence that environmental scientists who lead the pack, both within academia and beyond, are good communicators. These scientists know how to articulate a vision, focus a debate and cut to the essence of an argument. They can make a point compelling, even to those who disagree. They talk about their science in ways that make people sit up, take notice, and care.

I have also witnessed that, as scientists work toward becoming more effective communicators, they increasingly move into realms of leadership. When I look back at the early days and the scientists I have worked with this is evident in their trajectories. In a rough video clip I produced of a Leopold gathering in 2001 called “True Confessions: Coming Out of the Ivory Tower,” the fellows reveal why they decided they needed to work on communicating their science. “True Confessions” now has the unforeseen impact of a “before” glimpse of many scientists who have increasingly risen to leadership.

When you stand up and speak out – to the media, or policymakers, or you write an opinion piece or blog post – it is like a drop of water hitting the surface. It sends out ripples with unexpected repercussions – often, good ones.  Doors may swing open, new opportunities may arise.  You will meet new people and make new connections. Yet there are also challenges. Being a leader also means learning how to deal with the criticisms that arise, and keeping on keeping on. One thing, however, is clear – putting yourself and your science out there is a form of practice, learning, and giving.  And, by giving in that way it will somehow come back to you… thus a spirit of good intent is important.

"Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects." Dalai Lama. Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” –Dalai Lama.
Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they are not necessarily flashy. There is no single way to be, no single destination. It’s really a process of exploration, experimentation and finding your own voice.

And while communication is a critical aspect of leadership, there are other qualities as well. Here are the 10 key attributes that I see in scientist leaders – scientists who are making their science matter:

1) They have a vision – and can articulate it.

2) They are passionate. But don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeve.

3) They work hard at communication… even if they make it look deceptively easy.

4) They are generous and think beyond their own work to support others.

5) They take risks and are willing to fail – sometimes publicly.

6) They are resilient. And pick themselves up and keep on going when they fall.

7) They are self-examining and adaptive.

8) They seek solutions. And address the “so what” so people care.

9) They have a fun factor or some kind of charisma – but are not necessarily extroverted.

10) They are persistent. Patience eventually pays off.

While these ten things make a leader, not everyone will have all of these qualities. But most, in my experience, have many. Do you agree or disagree? And who, as a scientist communicator and leader, is currently inspiring you?

*This article was originally published on May 13, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.


A. Leslie Morrow: What Keeps You Going?

Dr. A. Leslie Morrow shares what keeps her going in her research on alcoholism: misguided reviewer comments, a promising new development in gene therapy, and the miraculous life of her cousin, Lance.

Dr. A. Leslie Morrow’s work is focused on developing an understanding of the role of GABAA receptors and neuroactive steroids in normal brain function and neuropsychiatric disease, particularly alcohol use disorders.

Six Practical Guidelines for Public Engagement

The Michigan Meeting for Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse brought scholars, practitioners, and communicators to the University of Michigan from May 13 – 15, 2015 to discuss why and how scientific scholarship should contribute to issues of public importance. COMPASS’ Science Outreach Director, Nancy Baron, attended the meeting and shared her six practical guidelines for how scientists can engage effectively. We are excited to be able to share Nancy’s remarks from the panel here on Before the Abstract.

Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter. Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.
Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter. Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.

For COMPASS, “navigating the rules of public engagement” has been an ever evolving endeavor, which we described in a paper published in PloS Biology. We not only teach the core competencies of communication, we broker relationships. We help scientists find their way into the right conversations, with the right people, at the right time. We are coaches and navigators. I have worked in the trenches for the last 15 years with hundreds of scientists, many of them conducting research in controversial fields such as fisheries, fire ecology, and climate change. Their success stories inspire me; it’s what keeps me in this line of work.

I am honored and delighted to be on this panel. One of these things is not like the others – meaning me. My fellow panelists are all academic researchers whose work COMPASS shares in our trainings, because their social science provides critical context for communicating science and informs how scientists describe and discuss their own work. I am a practitioner, not an academic, so my perspective will be a little different, but I hope, complementary.

So here are my six practical guidelines for how scientists can engage effectively:

1)    Show your passion.

When I first started coaching scientists, there was much concern that revealing passion for what you studied was unbecoming of a scientist, even “unscientific.” It was something to be avoided. I’ve found time and again that the scientists willing to reveal a part of themselves are, by far, the most effective communicators. It’s not only the “What?” or the “How?” – what most people are interested in is the “Why?”

Why do you study what you do? Why do you care? Why does it matter to the rest of us? Communicating your “why” is a powerful way to humanize your science. Many scientists see a profound difference in how interested people are in their science, when they explain their “why.”

Susan Fiske, a Princeton University researcher, has found that scientists have the respect of the public but not their trust. Scientists are seen as competent but cold in comparison to other professions. Trustworthiness, Fiske says, is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence, and evidence suggests “warmth is judged before competence,” and has more impact on how people respond to what you say.

Yet as a scientist you are trained to be dispassionate, to write and speak in the passive voice. Some of the most funny and charming scientists I know suddenly become rigid and boring when they make a formal presentation. They put on their science face. And lose their audience.

From what I have seen, the most effective aspect of engagement is to be – engaging. This means being yourself. Your best self –  the self who can capture the interest of your friends and have them listen to you, spellbound.

I thought Andy Hoffman’s recent speech to graduating students at Erb was incredibly moving because he talked about what HE believed.

“So, while I may teach that we have to convince others to protect nature through self-interest, financial incentives and pragmatic reasons, I believe we have to protect it for reasons that evoke words like sacred, divine, reverence, and love.  We protect and devote ourselves to what we love.”

If you want to win the hearts and minds of the public and policymakers, you have to be forthcoming with your own.

2)    Tell stories.

“Stories are data with a soul,” says story researcher Brene Brown. They are powerful and persuasive. We remember them longer and hold them closer.  At the #AcadEng Meeting, Richard Alley gave an outstanding keynote. Everything he said was built on a bedrock of science, but it was memorable because of the stories and how he told them – his brilliant and quirky personality shining through.

3)    Find a community of support.

You can’t do it alone. You need a network of other scientists to encourage and embolden you in your efforts. I think this meeting was designed by Andy Hoffman to make this happen, both within the University of Michigan and by bringing in a broader community of experts and examples. Institutional support is essential. Reward those who do engage in outreach.  Make it part of the tenure process. This is happening in places now around the country. The Dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, Lisa Graumlich (a Leopold fellow) is doing this. She tweeted us her perspective during the meeting, saying “Why not extend definition of research to include engagement as logical end product of engaged scholarship?”

4)    Find a mentor.

And my advice for young scientists, choose an advisor who not only has the academic credentials but who also shares your values to make your science matter. Pick someone who’s got your back, will guide you and will help you walk the fine lines that are especially important to young scientists. If the institution does not support these values, you might consider looking elsewhere for the leadership that will.

5)    Take the long view.

Most scientists I know who have suffered backlash have few regrets. They dust themselves off and respond with more and better science. Remember too, as poet Susan Musgrave says, “our mistakes make the best stories, and that’s why we should not think of them as failures.”

6)   I’ll end with the enduring guidance from the late, great Stanford climate scientist Steve Schneider: “Know thy audience, know thy self, know thy stuff”

 And remember that “staying out of the fray is not taking the ‘high ground’; it is just passing the buck.”

*This piece was adapted from an article originally published on May 21, 2015. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Moran Cerf: Well, That Escalated Quickly

Dr. Moran Cerf  shares a humorous anecdote about the time his team’s new publication picked up rapid-fire media coverage…for entirely the wrong reason.

An Astronomer’s Guide to Storytelling

In January 2015, Dr. Kaspar von Braun, an astrophysicist at Lowell Observatory, told his story at our Springer Nature Storytellers event in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. We asked him to share his experience and advice for future storytellers. His response can be summarized in two words; “Do it.”

On January 6, 2015, I had the honor of participating at a Springer Storyteller event in the old Town Hall in Seattle. There were about 300 people in attendance (some astronomers but largely members of the public), 5 speakers (all professional astronomers), and a team of MCs to warm up the crowd for the next speaker.AAS Show

As many astronomers can attest to, one tends to give a large number of talks in the field, normally around 45 min in length, supported by 30-60 PowerPoint slides that illustrate the subject. Not in this event, however. The goal was to tell stories, not present science: campfire over conference, so to speak. The only prop was a microphone on stage, which the speakers were told not to touch for noise reasons as the talks were being recorded as podcasts. There was no projector, no screen, no podium, no laser pointer, just you and the mic, and you had 10-15 min in which to tell your story, for which the speakers were encouraged to emphasize the personal and human aspects more than the science. I very clearly remember the moment of walking up to the microphone on stage with nothing in my hands, no computer waiting for me on some podium, and no projected talk title with my name underneath it. Adrenalin is a good drug.

To be honest, this challenge was one of the fondest memories I have of that evening: memorize a short, personal, and coherent story, and thereby not using any props at all. The single best aspect of the evening, however, was the quality of the talks given by the other speakers — I went last, and as I listened to the other speakers, I felt increasingly inadequate the closer it came time for me to talk. It turns out that I was not the only one thinking like that. Later, as we speakers enjoyed a “we did it” drink together, we all confided the exact same emotion I had felt: “Your stories are so terrific! What am I doing here???” There were serious masterpieces where you could feel that the story does not often see the light of day due to its very personal nature. Every astronomer goes through some trials and tribulations, but also quite funny experiences, on the way to being a full-time scientist, and all presentations one tends to give along the way are, by request and necessity, practically only about the science. To glimpse an insight into the personal histories and experiences of some fellow astronomers was a big honor to me and hopefully to the public audience — this is very, very rare.

I would be amiss if I did not mention the quality of the overall setting — the preparation of the event was exquisite, the mood of the audience was fantastic, and the little warm-up skits performed by the MC pair in between our talks were of high, stand-up comedian level. It was truly a humbling and at the same time adrenalin-filled experience, and I would recommend doing this to anyone who is not afraid to speak in public. The Storyteller team did a great job of preparing me to give a talk like that weeks ahead of the event, but at the same time never tried to influence what I was going to say. They just gave advice on what to emphasize.

To offer advice to anyone contemplating doing this — in two words: do it. And when you do, focus on the personal aspects and let the science take a back seat.

Interested in becoming a Springer Nature Storyteller? Visit our pitch page to submit your idea and learn more about the program and our upcoming fall shows!