Science Breakfast

Scientific Leadership in the 21st Century: Running Productive Labs, Leading Great People, Leading Self - By invitation only - Upon invitation of McKinsey & Company, Inc.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014
07:00 - 08:45 hrs CEST


Leadership can be defined in many ways. While definitions might vary, it is clear that leadership is not about seniority or titles, and it should not be confused with management. Leadership is about mobilizing groups of people – and by doing so creating exceptional value beyond what individuals can achieve – toward the achievement of a goal, including of course leading self. In science, the importance of individual excellence is well known and documented, in fact at times combined with the prejudice that most scientists act alone or in very small teams.
At the same time, biopharmaceutical and biomedical sciences have become highly multidisciplinary fields and new technological opportunities are continuously emerging, offering unprecedented opportunities (e.g., cell-based approaches; real-world patient data; high-throughput sequencing). Our experience from working with R&D industry leaders and their organizations suggests indeed that scientific excellence, focus, and cross-functional ways of working are important predictors of success. At lab level, not surprisingly, we have identified collaboration as a critical success factor, next to talent (Edwards et al., 2011). We have coined the term "scientific leadership" to describe what matters in biopharmaceutical and biomedical sciences more than anywhere else – successful leaders need to have depth and master the science but, at the same time, be capable to motivate and mobilize ever more cross-functional teams to overcome the important biomedical and biopharmaceutical challenges of our time.
As if this would not be difficult enough, today's volatile environment is providing science leaders challenges unseen in history. Science leaders are facing an unprecedented set of opportunities, increasingly deep but also hard-to-interpret insights into the science of disease mechanisms, at times overwhelming richness of knowledge and a 24/7 information flow that is hard to master by any single human individual, and, lastly, an ever more global and connected world, also between industry and academia.
We believe that mastering "scientific leadership" is becoming an extremely important capability in the 21st century, both in academia and in industry. It becomes relevant for today's students, post-docs/researchers, but also scientists and leaders in industry. This begs the question of how one can understand, let alone acquire such leadership skills. Learning by doing and exposure to mentors are certainly important components, but as a first step we need to define what "scientific leadership" is and what it takes. Hence, we believe it will benefit the progress of science if we facilitate the dialog between highly experienced and senior science leaders – reflecting on their path to success – young researchers, and successful business leaders. This cross-disciplinary dialog has the potential to derive learnings that can equip the next generation of leaders with what it takes to be successful in the 21st century.

1 – Michael Edwards et al. "Managing the health of early-stage discovery"; Nature Drug Discovery Reviews; Vol. 12 (page 171f.), March 2011
2 – Interviews with 21st century business leaders at
3 – McKinsey experiences in biopharmaceutical R&D, including relevant publications at