Breakfast on the International Day dedicated to China: Developing Stronger Science Leadership in Different Cultures - China, US/Europe and Others as Basis for Innovation

Facilitated by McKinsey & Company, Inc.

Monday, 25 June 2018
07:00 - 08:30 hrs CEST


In science, the importance of individual content mastery has endured over time in different cultures from ancient China to the Renaissance and beyond, and it remains encouraged, at times fueled by the prevailing prejudice that successful scientists have been acting alone when they came up with their inventions. Individual mastery certainly is and will remain important, a sine qua non.

However, our current reality tells us that most scientific fields are becoming more cross-disciplinary and innovation often arises at boundaries between fields (e.g., nanomaterials and advanced engineering in cancer diagnostics, machine learning in clinical trials); some experts call it a revolution of convergence.1 As if this would not be difficult enough, today's volatile world is providing scientists with challenges unseen in history (e.g., overwhelming amounts of knowledge, a 24/7 information flow, an ever more global and connected world). Based on our work with R&D organizations – public or private in nature – we often see that individual mastery alone becomes insufficient for delivering innovation. 

In business, there is a sound level of evidence that leadership – as per Peter Drucker the ability of common people to do uncommon things – is in fact the compelling answer to a similar problem by mobilizing groups of individuals or entire organizations against the most difficult problems. Over 90 percent of CEOs we interrogated are planning to increase investment in leadership development because they see it as the single most important human capital issue.2 From our work on Centered Leadership3, we see a ca. 12-fold correlation of leaders achieving highest outcomes if they master all dimensions of leadership such as "engaging" themselves and others in the face of risk and uncertainty.

Consequently, we believe that mastering "science leadership" – a term defined by us as the unique blend of individual mastery of science with the ability to lead teams and organizations – is becoming one of the most foundational capabilities in this century, in academia and in industry. It becomes relevant for today's students and postdocs/researchers, but also scientists and leaders of science organizations in industry and for policy makers in the field of education. 

Towards excellence in science leadership, we believe that three critical questions need compelling answers. Firstly, what constitutes "great" and effective science leadership? Some of our work stresses the importance of effective problem-solving leadership, operating with strong results orientation, seeking different perspectives, and being highly supportive as four critical leadership traits.3 The Centered Leadership project defined a broader leadership framework that can be applied against varying levels of knowledge and leadership intensity, from leading oneself to leading organizations through transformational change2. Empiric evidence also supports the value of T-shape profiles with depth in an area but wide interests and understanding across domains as a beneficial component of science leadership. Such integrators or "polymaths" have been successful innovators over time (e.g., Kepler, Pasteur, Darwin or today Buffet, Gates, Bezos) and it is a strong base for science leadership if combined with an ability to lead others. 

Secondly, from a public (education) and private (industry) lens, what can be done to develop more and better effective 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 rapidly evolving world – i.e., interdisciplinary opportunities, geographic variances and opportunities, connectedness, 24/7 – is impacting science leadership in terms of focus on disciplines, career development, etc.

It will benefit the progress of towards science leadership if we can facilitate the dialog between highly experienced science leaders from different cultural and geographic backgrounds, young researchers, and successful business leaders to sharpen these questions and push the answers further. We hope to accelerate the dialog that has started at previous Lindau meetings as it has the potential to equip the next generation of science leaders with what it takes to be truly successful.

1 – Sharp et al. "Convergence: The Future of Healthcare", MIT, Cambridge, 2016
2 – For example, "Centered Leadership: Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact", Joanna Barsh, 2014
3 – Decoding leadership: What really matters – McKinsey Quarterly, January 2015,

Related Laureates