Leadership is like shepherding

Leadership is like shepherding – selfless and most of the time you have to stand back and watch.  You show them where to forage [provide the vision], you take care of their health and welfare, you protect them against predators [threats] and you worry about them.  But, when all of that’s done, you watch from a distance and feel proud of them.

If you would like to discuss ideas about leadership in science and technology then join us towards the end of this month for a CPD module on Scientific Impact and Reputation, which is part of our Science and Technology Leadership programme at the University of Liverpool in London.


James Rebank, The Shepherd’s Life, Penguin, 2016.

We are all citizens of the world

A longer post this week because I was invited to write an article for the Citizens of Everywhere project being organised by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. The article is reproduced below:

Scientists seek to discover and describe knowledge, while engineers seek to apply and deploy the same knowledge by creating technology that supports our global society.  In their quests, both scientists and engineers are dependent on each other and on those that have gone before them.  On each other, because scientists increasingly need technology in order make discoveries, and because engineers need new scientific discoveries to drive innovation; and both groups stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, to mis-quote Isaac Newton who said he was able to see further by standing on the shoulders of his predecessors.  Scientists and engineers have to build on the achievements of their predecessors, otherwise nothing would be achieved in a single lifetime.  This process is enabled by the global dissemination of knowledge and understanding in our society, which does not recognise any boundaries and flows around the world largely unimpeded by the efforts of nation states and private corporations.  As Poincaré is reputed to have said ‘the scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful’.  The feeling of delight is a reward for hours of intense study; but, the realization that you are the first to recognise or discover a new scientific fact generates so much excitement that you want to tell everyone.  Scientists have always met to share their findings and discuss the implications.  As a young researcher, I had a postcard above my desk showing a photograph of the attendees at the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927 at which 29 scientists from around the world met to debate the latest discoveries relating to electrons and photons.  Seventeen of the 29 attendees at this conference went on to receive Nobel prizes.  Not all scientific meetings are as famous, or perhaps as significant, as the Solvay conference; but, today they are happening all around the world involving thousands of researchers from scores of countries.  Besides the bureaucratic burden of obtaining visas, national boundaries have little impact on these exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge and understanding.  If you are a researcher working in the subject with sufficient funding then you can attend; and if your work is sufficiently novel, rigorous and significant, as judged by your peers, then you can present it at one of these meetings.  You can also listen to the world’s leading experts in the field, have a discussion over a coffee, or even a meal, with them before going back to your laboratory or office and attempting to add to society’s knowledge and understanding.  Most scientists and engineers work as part of a global community contributing to, and exploiting, a shared knowledge and understanding of natural and manufactured phenomena; and in this process, as global citizens, we are relatively unaware and uninfluenced by the national boundaries drawn and fought over by politicians and leaders.  Of course, I have described a utopian world to which reality does not conform, because in practice corporations attempt to protect their intellectual property for profit and national governments to classify information in the national interests and sometimes restrict the movement of scientists and technologist to and from states considered to be not playing by the right set of rules.  However, on the timescale of scientific discovery, these actions are relatively short-term and rarely totally effective.  Perhaps this is because the delight in the beauty of discovery overcomes these obstacles, or because the benefits of altruistic sharing outweigh the selfish gain from restrictive practices.  (Of course, the scientific community has its charlatans, fraudsters and free-loaders; but, these counterfeiters tend to operate on a global stage so that even their fake science impacts on the world-wide community of scientists and engineers.)  Participation in this global exchange of ideas and information makes many of us feel part of a world-wide community, or citizens of the world, who are enfranchised by our contributions and interactions with other citizens and international organisations.  Of course, along with everyone else, we are also inhabitants of the world; and these two actions, namely enfranchisement and inhabiting, are key characteristics of a citizen, as defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  Theresa May in her speech last October, at the Conservative party conference said: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’  If she is right, then she rendered many scientists and engineers as aliens; however, I don’t think she is, because citizenship of the world does not exclude us from also being citizens of other, local communities; even though politicians may want to redraw the boundaries of these communities and larger unions to which they belong.  However, in practice, it is hard to avoid the fact that we are all inhabitants of planet Earth and have a responsibility for ensuring that it remains habitable for our grand-children and great-grandchildren; so, we are all citizens of the world with its associated responsibilities.

When I was a student, thirty years ago, James Lovelock published his famous book, ‘Gaia’ in which he postulated that the world was a unified living system with feedback control that preserved its own stability but not necessarily the conditions for the survival of the human race.  More recently, Max Tegmark, in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’, has used the analogy of spaceship Earth stocked with large but limited supplies of water, food and fuel, and equipped with both an atmospheric shield and a magnetic field to protect us from life-threatening ultra-violet and cosmic rays, respectively.  Our spaceship has no captain; and we spend next to nothing on maintenance such as avoiding onboard explosions, overheating, ultra-violet shield deterioration or premature depletion of supplies.  Lovelock and Tegmark are part of a movement away from a reductionist approach to science that has dominated since Descartes and Newton, and towards systems thinking, in which it is recognised that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  It’s hard for most of us to adopt this new thinking, because our education was configured around dividing everything into its smallest constituent parts in order to analyse and understand their function; but, this approach often misses, or even destroys, the emergent behaviour of the complex system – it’s like trying to understand the functioning of the brain by physically dissecting it.  Recently reported statements about citizens of the world and about climate change, suggest that some world leaders and politicians find it easier, or more convenient, to use reductionism to ignore or deny the potential for complex systems, such as our global society and planet Earth, to exhibit emergent behaviour.

Thomas L. Friedmann in his book, ‘The World is Flat’ warned that ‘every young American would be wise to think of themselves competing against every young Chinese, Indian or Brazilian’.  He was right; we cannot turn back the globalisation of knowledge.  The hunger for knowledge and understanding is shared by all and courses provided over the internet are democratizing knowledge to an unprecedented level.  For instance, I recently taught a course on undergraduate thermodynamics – not normally a popular subject; but, it was made available globally as a massive open on-line course (MOOC) and taken by thousands of learners in more than 130 countries.  The citizens of the world are becoming empowered by knowledge and simultaneously more networked.  Large complex networks are systems that exhibit emergent behaviour, which tends to be unexpected and surprising, especially if you only consider their constituents.


Inspirational leadership

Leadership is about inspiring people; whereas, management is about organising tasks and resources.  In a organisational context, strategic leadership is about persuading people to move voluntarily, and together, in a direction that benefits the organisation; while, management is about dealing with the complexity of planning and processes.  The boundary between leadership and management is often blurred; though in my experience, people more frequently believe that they are leading when, in reality, they are managing.  Perhaps, this is because they want to make a difference; but, for most of us, leadership is really hard and requires courage.  The courage to be different.  To be selfless.  The courage to do what is right and not just what is easy.

It is easier to get involved in the detail of making things happen, of telling people how to do things; but that’s management and not leadership.  Leadership is about letting go and trusting others to make the right decisions on the details – having the courage to delegate.  There’s something about entropy in there and not over constraining the system, or under constaining it; but, now I ‘ve got to the entropy vector and that’s a whole different story.

Robert D Handscombe & Eann A Patterson, The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business, Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2004.

Technology leadership

zennor head

Some of us have followed compassionate, courageous, transformative leaders and some of us aspire to be this type of leader.  Good leadership results in teams to which people want to belong and can transform an organization.  However, good leaders are remarkably rare, at least in science and engineering.  Is that because leaders are born rather than created?  This is part of the nature versus nurture debate and recent research, reported in Nature Genetics, suggests that the influence of genetics and environment on human traits is pretty much equal, based on a fifty-year study of 1.4 million twin pairs.  This implies that there is opportunity to nurture leaders and as individuals to hone our leadership skills, which is something I have working on recently.

Over the past fifteen months I have been working, with colleagues from one of the UK’s national laboratories, on developing a set of new courses to support aspiring leaders in research and development organizations.  Last semester we offered these courses as credit-bearing continuous professional development (CPD) for the national lab’s employees.  You can enroll on the next offering of the courses next semester if you can get to London one day each month from March to June [sciencetechnologyleadership.wordpress.com].  If you joined us then you would be involved in discussions about: gathering, using and presenting evidence; marrying detailed evidence with a ‘big picture’ perspective; communicating using concise narratives; thinking ‘just’ out-of-the box and challenging the norm; as well as personal integrity and doing the right thing.  To stimulate these discussions, we’ll ask you to read books such as ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team‘  by Patrick Lencioni, ‘The Complete Cosmicomics‘ by Italo Calvino and ‘We Are All Stardust‘ by Stefan Klein.  You will have noticed the influence of the last two books in posts on this blog during 2016 and you can expect a few more in 2017!

Engineers and scientists need to work in teams nowadays and someone needs to lead these teams; however our education as scientists and engineers tends to focus on management without examining the skills associated with successful leadership.  Management is about organising resources and tasks whereas leadership is about inspiring and motivating people.  The analytical skills honed by a technical education equip us well to perform management tasks but prepare us poorly for leadership roles in which nothing is well-defined or easily described.


Polderman TJC, Benyamin B, de Leeuw CA, Sullivan PF, van Bochoven A, Visscher PM, Posthuma D, Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies, Nature Genetics, 47: 702–709 (2015).

Patrick Lencioni, The five dysfunctions of a team, Lafayette, CA: Table Group Inc.,

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Stefan Klein, We are all stardust, London: Scribe, 2015.


WOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity

33 finsbury squareWOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity.  What do they have in common?  Well, each of them features in a new and rather different education programme that we are launching next month on the University of Liverpool’s campus at 33 Finsbury Square, London.  We are targetting mid-career engineers and scientists, working in research and development organisations, who want to develop their skills and advance their careers. I write ‘we’ because it is a joint effort by the School of Engineering at the University and the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory.  It has been something of an adventure for me putting the modules together and we hope they will form a voyage of discovery and adventure for our delegates.

In case you are wondering about WOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity – they will feature in modules on Science Leadership & Ethics, Technical Communication, Technical Writing, and Technical Reputation respectively.  These four five-credit modules plus a work-based project form the programme that leads to a Post-graduate Award.  Each module involves a day on campus in London supported by reading and assignments before and afterwards; and we are running a module per month between now and Christmas.

If you’re curious to find out more then visit our website or watch our Youtube video.