Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Feel-Good Boss

We are discussing leadership styles, and the first type I'd like to consider is known as the "interpersonal" or "participative" type of leader.  Someone who employs this style might be called the Feel-Good Boss.  Such a leader motivates subordinates by focusing on their morale and welfare, often helping or doing favors for them or working alongside them to solve problems.  This boss is friendly and available, which usually makes them very popular and well-liked.

That's the case with Capt. Mikhail Polenin (played by the actor Liam Neeson), a character in the movie K-19: The Widowmaker, which I described in the previous post. He is the captain of the first Soviet submarine outfitted with nuclear reactors.  For its first mission as a nuclear-powered submarine, Polenin has been demoted to XO and replaced by Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (played by Harrison Ford), who uses quite a different, more autocratic leadership style (Command and Control).  I will be using this film to explore these two styles of leadership.

As the film opens, we immediately recognize that Polenin is well-liked and respected by his officers and crew.  The reason becomes obvious even before the submarine leaves port.  As supplies are being loaded, the ship's doctor, rushing to catch up with a departing supply truck, is struck and killed. Vostrikov strides over, takes one look, and orders one man to call and wait for an ambulance and the other men back to work.  They all stand there with shocked expressions at this apparently callous response. Polenin then rushes over, kneels by the fallen doctor, calls his first name, and clearly shows that he's affected on a personal level at this death.

As the movie progresses, we see many more examples of Polenin's interpersonal style of leadership.  He inquires about individual crew members and challenges Vostrikov's intensely brutal drills, which push the crew to their physical and emotional limits.  When the crew members falter during these exercises, Polenin rolls up this sleeves and works alongside them to accomplish their tasks.

What are the advantages of this type of leadership style?  According to experts, this style works well in situations where team members are highly skilled and capable of making informed decisions as well as providing useful input to leaders.  It's helpful in settings where creative and original ideas are needed from everyone to accomplish the mission, and there is time to discuss options and come to a democratic decision. Workers are more motivated and inclined to work hard when their leader treats them with this level of consideration and respect.  I would add that this style is also compatible with the academic leader who is expected to mentor students and postdocs.

The interpersonal style does not work well in other situations, however.  Military situations are a prime example in which a leader must be able to make fast decisions.  There is usually no time to get everyone's opinion, discuss options, and make everyone feel good before proceeding to shoot off a nuclear warhead.

In K-19, the interpersonal style used by Polenin has clearly led to a dangerous situation in which the crew is ill-prepared to respond to the various challenges that may arise in a nuclear submarine carrying atomic warheads.  The numerous accidents that occur prior to leaving the port and during the drills are a direct result of Polenin's failure to push his men to their best performance and to hold them accountable for failures in the past.  One gets the impression that Polenin has coddled his crew, who have not been trained properly to face the grim reality of their situation.

Polenin's failure is abundantly clear to Vostrikov, who proceeds to test and push the crew until they perform satisfactorily. The viewer soon recognizes that Vostrikov's style of leadership is needed for this particular situation and that Polenin may have failed his crew by being too soft on them.

In science, we do not usually find ourselves in such dire circumstances as a nuclear submarine crew, but our work is very mission-oriented, which requires adherence to protocols, careful record-keeping, and other concerns to ensure the quality and timeliness of our products. A leader who fails to ensure that team members are performing their best will ultimately fall by the wayside due to errors, delays, and other problems.  If a person chooses the interpersonal style of leadership, they must walk a fine line in such settings.  In the process of being friendly and supportive of subordinates, asking for advice and help making decisions, and perhaps failing to hold people fully accountable for mistakes, the Feel-Good Boss may subvert the work goal in favor of people's feelings.  Or the subordinates may begin to take liberties and overstep their roles, which happens in K-19.

When the nuclear reactor springs a leak, the crew must go inside the chamber to make repairs. Unfortunately, they have only chemical protection suits on board, not radiation-protective gear.  They have no choice but to sacrifice a few crew members to avoid a larger disaster that will kill everyone.  The crew are sent into the reactor chamber in pairs for only 10 minutes at a time, but this is enough to get a fatal dose. Each pair emerges vomiting and with their skin already burned after their brief exposures. The radiation quickly begins spreading throughout the submarine.  Polenin wants to ask a nearby American destroyer for help to evacuate the crew. Vostrikov is adamant that he will not allow the sub to fall into American hands. Some of the officers loyal to Polenin decide that they must relieve Vostrikov of his command and reinstate Polenin.  I won't reveal what happens next, but it's this action that finally wakes Polenin up to the fact that his crew is making decisions and taking actions that they think he would approve of (rather than waiting for him to issue the order).

An analogous laboratory scenario might be, for example, when a student or less knowledgeable lab worker has decided to take a "short-cut" in a method.  Their reasoning is usually that the short-cut will save time, not realizing that it will cause a major error in the resulting data.  This scenario might occur when the PI has encouraged her team to make their own decisions.  By inviting less skilled team members to participate in decision making, the PI may get some useful ideas or boost morale, but also runs the risk of sending the wrong message, i.e., that subordinates are being invited to make critical decisions on their own--for which they are insufficiently prepared. 

Another downside to the participatory style of leadership is when a subordinate feels emboldened to eventually challenge the leader's authority.  If the leader works side-by-side with subordinates, frequently helping them with their tasks or soliciting advice, the distinction between their roles becomes blurred.  Subordinates may perceive their role to be more elevated (e.g., by providing input to major decisions) and the leader's role reduced (e.g., by seeming to need subordinate's advice to make decisions).  They ultimately may question the leader's capacity to lead.  A female leader might be more vulnerable in this regard.

It's possible to be a participatory leader without a loss of control, of course.  For example, a PI might work alongside staff in the laboratory or field, even performing menial tasks, but still remain a strong leader by performing duties that only she can carry out (establishing the group's research goals, writing and submitting proposals, preparing budgets, doing performance reviews, approving expenditures, etc.).  Everyone gets the message that the boss is willing to (and capable of) doing the technical work when necessary, but that her primary role is to make the big decisions and guide the team, i.e., be the leader. Team morale is good because members feel that their leader values their opinions and skills and knows first-hand what their work entails; they simultaneously are glad that the leader is ultimately responsible for the team's performance.  Capt. Polenin was following this model, which worked as long as there was no crisis (at least that's how I interpreted his portrayal in the movie). The movie's contrast between the more "feminine" leadership style of Polenin and the "macho" style of Vostrikov may have been mostly contrived (and unrealistic), but was still an interesting comparison.

So, the participatory style of leadership can have a positive impact on team members' morale and usually gains that leader the respect and allegiance of subordinates.  This approach works in certain settings, but not in others.  It can be problematic when there is a critical mission to for example, where failure can result in death or injury of those involved in the work (military) or who might be affected by the outcome of the work (medical field).  For a woman, this leadership style, which uses many traditionally feminine qualities, may seem to be a natural choice, but could make her appear to be a weak leader.

In the next post, I'll examine the task-oriented/autocratic style of leadership, exemplified by Capt. Vostrikov in K-19.  After we have a clear picture of both styles, I'll consider them together in the context of scientific leadership and whether gender differences play a role in our choices of leadership style.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What Type of Leader Are You?

....or do you prefer? These questions occurred to me as I was watching a movie, K-19: The Widowmaker. In case you never saw it, this film is loosely based on events during the Cold War when the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine (the K-19) almost experienced a nuclear meltdown when the reactor cooling system sprung a leak.
Aside from telling a gripping and suspenseful story, the movie also explores a number of interesting themes, including leadership styles.
The main characters, played by Harrison Ford (in one of his best performances) and Liam Neeson, have very different styles of leadership. Neeson’s character (Capt. Mikhail Polenin) uses what is known as a “participatory” style of leadership behavior. He treats his crew in a friendly manner, seeks their input, and often pitches in to work alongside the crew when they falter. His style also has many features more characteristic of women (sympathetic, concerned about subordinates' welfare, helpful, and other communal qualities). Polenin has been the crew’s captain for some time and holds their absolute trust and allegiance. The character played by Harrison Ford (Capt. Alexei Vostrikov) is just the opposite…an authoritarian leader who pushes the crew to their limits and expects nothing less than peak performance in all circumstances. His style of leadership is known as "task-oriented", in addition to being autocratic. Vostrikov is totally focused on the mission; all other concerns are secondary (or not relevant), including people's lives, which may be sacrificed to achieve the ultimate goals of the State. He makes all decisions alone, seeks no input from subordinates, but accepts full responsibility for his decisions. These two are thrown together when Vostrikov is assigned to replace Polenin as captain of the K19 (after Polenin disagrees with superiors about the readiness of the sub); Polenin is assigned to stay on as XO.
Reviews often compare K19: The Widomaker to The Search for Red October, Das Boot, or Crimson Tide. However, about the only thing these films have in common is that they all take place on a submarine. There are various quibbles about historical accuracy, fake Russian accents, and the obligatory submarine scenes (pressure-induced hulk clanking, etc.), but all in all it’s a good movie. I’m not interested in doing another review of K-19; plenty of others have done so, and you can find these on the internet.
What is most interesting to me and what I'd like to explore further is the contrasting leadership styles and how the two characters deal with different dilemmas that arise during their ill-fated voyage. It’s such an interesting and nuanced exploration of leadership (as well as bravery) that the film is often used as a case study in leadership courses.
And did I mention that K-19 was directed by Kathryn Bigelow? She also directed the recent film, Hurt Locker, which won an Oscar for best picture and director, beating out Avatar, directed by her former husband, James Cameron (see previous posts about Avatar and sexism in Cameron's films). One can muse about why Bigelow is drawn to mostly male protagonists and topics of bravery and leadership in military situations…
But….back to leadership styles. I thought it would be interesting to examine these two styles (task-oriented/autocratic vs. communal/participatory) and then consider women's leadership styles. Which one worked better in this military situation? What happens when women copy men’s traditional leadership styles? Can we develop our own unique styles of leadership...that work?
In the next post, I will examine the participatory style of leadership in more detail, using the dilemmas in K19 to assess advantages and disadvantages of this style.
Photo Credit: Still image from K-19: The Widowmaker, First Light Production

Friday, August 26, 2011

American Translation

I mentioned in the last post that I recently attended a regional conference in another country. I gave one of the plenary presentations, but was the only speaker (plenary or session) to deliver a talk in English.  There were other Americans in attendance, but they were apparently fluent in the local language.  I knew beforehand that this would likely be the case and that many in the audience might not understand English very well.

What should one do in such an instance? Just deliver in English and hope for the best? Read a foreign translation of your talk?

I had briefly considered reading my talk in the native language of the host country, but finally decided that my pronunciation/accent might not be understood. Also, reading a talk is boring, in any language. I decided I had to deliver in English and have a translator.  I've done this before, but it was not a simultaneous translation. Instead, the translator stood beside me and translated after each sentence or two.  Simultaneous translation is much better, but requires more preparation.

I initially relied on the conference organizers, who invited me, to make whatever arrangements might be necessary.  The plan was to have a simultaneous translator and to give out headphones to those who needed them.  However, I learned after arriving at the conference venue that only 100 or so headphones would be rented, but that they were expecting around 600 participants (turns out around 350 or so attended the day of my presentation).

After meeting a few people who spoke so little English that I was forced to use what little I knew of their language to communicate, I realized that this would not be like a typical international conference where the official language is English and most people understand it.  I began to be concerned that some people would not be able to follow my presentation.  So in addition to the translator (more about that later), I made a few adjustments to my Powerpoint presentation.

First of all, I asked a former student from that country to help me translate key phrases on my slides into their language. I know enough of the language to get by, but cannot carry on a conversation or trust myself to do an accurate job of translation. However, knowing some basic vocabulary and conjugation was a big help.  We also made use of online translators to check for alternate definitions and to look up technical words.  This all worked well. Each slide had the title translated.  I also inserted a sentence on key slides that summarized the main point.  Most of my slides were very visual, with photos, graphs, and diagrams--to facilitate understanding without a verbal description.  I also used a lot of animation with arrows or circles to emphasize key aspects of the data (and minimize the need for additional verbiage).

It took us about an hour to go through the presentation and do all the translation. I later added some more slides to the presentation and was able to use the online translator by myself to fill in the text translation.

As I mentioned above, they also hired a simultaneous translator, and the conference hall was set up for this with a booth and microphones.  Prior to leaving home for the meeting, I sent the translator the script of my presentation so she would have plenty of time to do the translation.  She took the script and wrote all of it out in the native language.  The day of my presentation, I met with her to go over the talk and to answer any questions she had about technical terms.  I was very impressed with her professionalism and how much she understood of the science. I answered her questions, and we went over last-minute changes in the order of slides.

Then it was time for my talk.  I hesitated to start off by apologizing for speaking in English, but decided to do so. However, I made a joke about it, which seemed to be appreciated.  During the talk, I made a point to speak slowly and to enunciate my words carefully.   I also paused frequently and looked directly at different sections of the audience (to make eye contact).  I tried to gauge how well people were understanding, but it was impossible (I find this difficult anyway with most audiences, who tend to sit with blank expressions).  Anyway, I proceeded with the expectation that I was being understood.

Apparently, I was.  Afterwards, several people who were not fluent in English came up to tell me that they had no trouble following my talk and really appreciated the efforts I made to make my talk understandable.  They mentioned my speaking slowly and especially the language translation on each slide as being the biggest factors that helped them follow me (they also hinted that this had not been their usual experience with other American and British speakers who tend to talk very rapidly).

I was very pleased with how well it all turned out.  Maybe I'll get confident enough in the future to deliver a talk in another language. For now, though, I see what I should do to help non-English speakers to better follow my presentations.

Photo Credits: Creature from District 9 (TriStar Pictures); NASA/JPL Planetquest; modified still image, unknown photographer

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Science Fans

Last week I had a new experience.  I have been attending a conference in another country and gave a plenary presentation. It went well, and afterwards, several people approached to talk and ask questions. Two students came up and told me that they were big fans of my work...had read all of my papers, etc. Both, by the way, were female.  The one who could speak English the best and who seemed to be most "star-struck" asked if she could have her picture taken with me.  I obliged.  

I then asked the students about their interests and what their research projects were about. They were soon joined by other women, professors and students, all of whom were apparently fans of my work.  We had a great time exchanging stories about our work and experiences (problems, triumphs).

Anyway, this was the first time I've ever experienced this--being asked to have my picture taken with someone...a stranger.  I have been approached by students before who liked my papers and wanted to meet me.  The request for a photo was new, though.  It seemed awkward from my viewpoint, because I do not know this student.  However, I realized that she felt she knew me through my papers and especially just having heard me give a presentation.  So, it makes sense, I suppose, to want to have a photo of me.  I'm not sure what she will do with this photo. Keep it on her computer desktop as encouragement through her graduate program? 

I relate this story to make a point, which is that we often don't know how much our research articles influence others, especially students and junior scientists.  It's only when they come up to us at meetings and tell us about the impact our work has had on them personally that it becomes apparent.

These students (and their female professors) explained that they followed my work and looked forward to each new paper.  They also explained that they had been encouraged (by my work) to pursue a particular area of research themselves.  I hesitate to use the term, role-model, but that was what I was thinking when they were explaining how they viewed me and my publications. I had not thought of being a role-model in this way before...for strangers I may never meet or meet only briefly.

Is it better to meet someone you admire (who perhaps will not live up to your expectations) or never meet and maintain your mental image of them?

I recall meeting a Famous Scientist early in my career, someone whose work I admired, and being quite shocked to discover what a jerk he was.  It may have been better had I never met him, as I could never look at his papers with quite the same admiration after meeting him.   

On the other hand, I've met scientists whose work I had followed for years and who turned out to be great people and very supportive.  Some have become good friends over the years. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Are Female Scientists An Endangered Species?

An article recently asked this question based on the observation that fewer than 10% of UK professors are female.  The problem posed is the familiar one of retention of women in science after graduation, rather than engagement of girls at earlier stages.  Statistics quoted for the UK are similar to those in the US: around half of science students are female (even higher for biology).  So, there seems to be less of a problem attracting young females to science.  After graduation, however, the numbers shrink as women, facing the realities of balancing a career in a highly competitive field with family obligations and other interests, begin to drop out.  The article goes on to discuss what might be done to help women stay in science.

Viewing women in science as endangered is an interesting way to look for solutions.  Using the endangered species model as a guide, we can immediately focus on the habitat as a critical factor in species survival.  Just as an endangered plant or animal requires certain environmental conditions to maintain a healthy population, women in science also require a supportive environment to not only survive, but to thrive.  For example: sufficient resources and space (habitat) as well as ways to support recruitment and minimize losses are necessary to have a viable population.  From an individual's standpoint, it means everything one needs to compete with others successfully.  It's not a perfect analogy, but perhaps useful to ponder how one's work environment, especially support from superiors, staff, and colleagues, can be a major factor in whether a woman chooses to remain in her career or drop out. 

Just the other day, I was talking with another member of a Women in Science group at a university where I am an adjunct.  I've been attending the meetings of this group off and on for over a year and providing some insights about being a woman in science, basically saying that there will be bumps in the road, but it gets better if you stick it out.  One or two other senior female faculty had also been attending and providing the same type of message, in various ways.  This was not a planned strategy on our just came across that way. 

I had been wondering if the students and postdocs who belonged to this group were getting anything out of our meetings (I had never really gotten any direct feedback from them, positive or negative). Anyway, she had been talking to one of the students who belonged to the group and who had told her that these meetings had greatly influenced her.  The student had been having some problems and was thinking that she was not cut out for a career in science.  Hearing from some senior female scientists and seeing how we had succeeded convinced her to persevere.  It seemed that hearing stories about what issues we had faced and how we dealt with them essentially sent the message that they were not alone in their experience, i.e., it was normal to occasionally feel inadequate or uncertain about a science career, but it would pass.

It's important to have a support group, whether you are having problems or not.  Perhaps you are supremely confident in your capabilities and are sailing through your graduate program or postdoc training.  However, you never know what might change tomorrow to throw a wrench into your plans.  I find that those students who have rarely (or never) faced real difficulties are the least prepared to deal with a major setback. They are so accustomed to things always going their way, that they are left confused and shaken when things go wrong.  Instead, those who have had to work hard expect difficulties and usually have developed good coping mechanisms and especially a support network. 

Having a support group can be a life saver in such instances.  I didn't, and struggled to maintain my confidence and to see my way forward when those obstacles occurred.  Even my spouse (a science professor), who provided emotional support, really didn't understand from his perspective as a male in a male-dominated field.  Consequently, much of his encouragement missed the mark.  He really could not grasp what it is like to be marginalized or even actively discouraged by superiors and coworkers.  He was always accepted as rightfully belonging to the science club, assumed to be competent (or had the potential), expected to be ambitious and to advance up the career ladder.  He's never really understood what it was like not to have that kind of underpinning. 

I'm convinced that it takes someone who has had similar experiences to provide you with the right kind of support or encouragement.  Peers (male or female), who are not experiencing problems, may even be dismissive or critical of you, believing that the fault lies in your inability to deal with everyday issues (or even that your behavior is the source of the problem).  This attitude, whether voiced or not, can be extremely damaging...perhaps more so than the problem itself. 

Anyone who is facing a problem, especially one that shakes an individual's confidence, needs reassurance that they can overcome it.  Yes, in some cases, the victim is part of the problem and needs to do some serious reassessment of their interpersonal dealings.  But the way to help them (if you are their friend) is to assure them that others have had this same problem, but succeeded in dealing with doing x, y, or z. Hearing a true story from someone who lived through it is a safe way to get the message across without blatantly blaming the victim, which will only make them more defensive. 

In recounting such a story, a veteran might say, "I didn't realize initially how I was viewed by colleagues, but once I did, it seemed obvious that they would continue treating me badly as long as I continued my behavior.  I finally realized that they had no incentive to change, but I did. Once I modified how I (fill in the blank), their attitude toward me began to change." 

Stories are excellent ways to teach others.  They convey real (or sometimes imagined) situations and describe how the heroine overcomes obstacles and goes on to a successful career in science.  Perhaps we need more of such stories, including the emotional and gritty details, to help prepare those starting out to expect and conquer impediments....and eventually, women in science will be taken off the endangered species list.