Science Breakfast: Stronger Science Leadership as Basis for Innovation in a Disruptive World

hosted by McKinsey & Company, Inc.

Thursday, 29 June 2017
07:00 - 08:45 CEST


Over 90 percent of CEOs are planning to increase investment in leadership development because they see it as the single most important human capital issue.1,2 Leadership is about mobilizing groups of individuals and entire organizations – and by doing so creating exceptional value beyond what individuals can achieve – often towards solving the most difficult problems.

In science, the importance of individual excellence is well known and remains encouraged, at times fueled by the prevailing prejudice that successful scientists have been acting alone when they came up with their inventions. However, reality tells us that most scientific fields have become highly multidisciplinary and innovation often arises at boundaries between fields (e.g., cell-based approaches in medicine, DNA-based approaches in computing). Indeed, our work with leaders of R&D organizations makes us believe that the same business causality – leadership driving innovation and performance – is truer than ever in science.

As if this would not be difficult enough, today's volatile world is providing science leaders with challenges unseen in history. Science leaders are facing an unprecedented set of opportunities, increasingly deep but also hard-to-interpret insights into science, 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.

In consequence, we believe that mastering "science leadership" is becoming an important capability in the 21st century, both in academia and in industry. It becomes relevant for today's students, postdocs/researchers, but also scientists and leaders in industry. Towards mastery, we believe that three critical questions need compelling answers. Answers will help to develop enhanced capacity for science leadership and, in consequence, lead to more innovations benefitting humankind. Firstly, what constitutes "great" and effective science leadership? What matters most? Work with business leaders stresses the importance of effective problem solving leadership, operating with strong results orientation, seeking different perspectives, and being highly supportive as the four most important leadership traits.2,3 We recommend similar research in science to validate and complement these findings in order to define effective science leadership. Secondly, from a public (education) and private (industry) lens, what can be done to develop better and more science leaders? The need is evident but research is needed on how to motivate, support, and mentor individuals as they commit to science and develop such leadership traits. Thirdly, the question is how the evolving world – i.e., interdisciplinary opportunities, connectedness, 24/7 – is impacting science leadership in terms of focus on disciplines, career development, etc.

It will benefit the progress of science if we can facilitate the dialog between highly experienced and senior science leaders (reflecting on their path to success), young researchers, and successful business leaders to sharpen these questions and push the emerging answers further. We hope to advance the dialog that has started at the last Lindau meetings as it has the potential to derive learnings that can equip the next generation of science leaders with what it takes to be successful in the 21st century.


1 – The State of Human Capital 2012 – False Summit: Why the Human Capital Function Still Has Far to Go, a joint report from The Conference Board and McKinsey, October 2012,

2 – Decoding leadership: What really matters – McKinsey Quarterly, January 2015,

3 – Michael Edwards et al. "Managing the health of early-stage discovery"; Nature Drug Discovery Reviews; Vol. 12 (page 171f.), March 2011

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