Columns Conversations

10 leaders, 10 questions: Ron Vale

Shreya Ghosh

Ron Vale is a Distinguished Professor at University of California, San Francisco. He is also an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was recently named Executive Director of the Janelia Research Campus. He has co-founded several organizations dedicated to facilitating scientific publishing, outreach, mentorship and networking, including iBiology, ASAPbio and IndiaBioscience. During YIM2019, we chatted with Ron Vale about his experience as a leader.

Ron Vale: 10 Leaders 10 Questions
Ron Vale: 10 Leaders 10 Questions  

What role do you think able leadership plays in determining the culture and evolution of a scientific or an academic institution?

I think leadership is critical. It sets the entire tone of the institute and it sets the level of innovation that the institute is willing to undertake. Leadership is also critical for getting ideas translated into actual practical outcomes. At many different levels, having a good leader can be very determinative of how well an organization does, whether it’s a non-profit organization, academic institution or industry.

According to you, what are the key qualities of a leader?

A good leader is not necessarily someone who does things by a dictatorial or top-down manner. A good leader is someone who builds consensus within an institute, who is willing to listen to ideas from other people. A good leader has to make the people in that organization feel excited about working there and feel comfortable with the roles that they bring to the organization. A leader can’t do everything on their own. So, a large part of leadership is not just coming up with ideas by oneself, but collecting ideas from the community and figuring out ways of bringing them into action. A leader has to be willing to listen as well as talk, and that’s not necessarily a prevalent skill amongst many people.

So, when did you realize that you are on a path that’s heading towards leadership?

People view leadership as being the head of something. And of course, that may take quite a while to achieve. I think the more meaningful way to look at leadership is that it can occur at many levels, even for very small projects – that’s where leadership begins and where it should begin. So if you are a graduate student and you are organizing a journal club, I would consider that a leadership role. And these roles are very meaningful because a well-functioning organization should nurture many leaders, not just one.

I think I’ve never considered myself to be a leader”. When I was younger, I just thought Well, here’s an interesting project. I’d like to do it because I think it would be exciting to do. And it would be fun to bring other people along in this journey.” And so, I think I started out not by aiming to become a leader but by aiming to get some interesting project done. And of course, I would argue now that that was leadership, but I didn’t think about it as leadership at the time.

What would you consider some of your biggest successes as a leader?

There are two kinds of leadership roles I’ve taken on. Ones which are formal appointments and ones which are informal, emerging bottom-up leadership roles. In many of these latter roles, there was no title, there was no appointment, but were really fun journeys in leadership. The Young Investigators’ Meetings (YIMs) and IndiaBioscience are both examples of this. It’s very gratifying to see YIMs today, which were not necessarily intended to be a multi-year project. When we started, it was an experiment. We didn’t know how well it was going to work, but it did require leadership to make sure that that first event in 2009 was done as well as it possibly could be, because whether that project would carry on or not depended upon the success of that first meeting.

IndiaBioscience, similarly, was an experiment to see whether one could create a website that would be a way of disseminating information about biology in India and would create a platform for people to interact. At the time, that was a big experiment too. No one knew whether it would be successful or whether people would come. So the goal at the time was just to try to create this platform and make it as good as possible. And now I’m really excited that both these projects have turned into something bigger.

iBiologystarted off as a $2,000 experiment. It began with an idea – can we disseminate scientific information on the web through talks – and it has now become an organization.ASAPbio is another example. It was based on the idea of whether we could try to make publication better serve scientists and whether we could try to advance preprints in the life sciences. Again, the initial goal was to just do the first meeting and test this experiment. But again, because I think the initial planning was really good, it turned into an organization.

So I think these experiences have been the most gratifying to me. They weren’t appointments; each of these was just an effort just to create some good for the scientific community, and it’s been amazingly gratifying to see these projects actually become really official organizations with people working for them and going in different directions. A very gratifying outcome of leadership is seeing one’s effort benefiting other people.

What are some instances where you have faced failure and what have those taught you?

First of all, in science, one has to deal with failure all the time. And perhaps failure sounds like a very harsh word because sometimes we internalize the word failure’ as some failing in ourselves. But the other way to view failure is that it is a consequence of either taking on something ambitious, or even just the nature of science. We simply do not know enough about biology. So when we design experiments or projects, it’s very hard to guess exactly how biological organisms work. A lot of our ideas are wrong. A lot of our experiments are not necessarily designed in ways that lead to successful outcomes. So we can’t always expect to succeed – and that’s not a personal failure; it’s just the nature of the work we’re doing.

I think one of the great difficulties that students face coming into science is that many of them are used to succeeding a lot, whether in exams and in classroom learning. And then you come into science and real science doesn’t grade on a bell curve. Real science means that you either discover something or you don’t. Oftentimes it’s a very different mental transition. Some of the best students in science are not necessarily the ones that have done exceedingly well on exams, but those who have a great deal of resilience and are able to work through failure’.

There is also the possibility of failure’ in a leadership role. In most cases, leadership roles don’t involve the natural world, but the social world of how to organize people in environments where those individuals produce some kind of successful outcome, and one also has to be ready for failure in these organizational tasks.

If everything you do is successful, you’re probably not trying things that are ambitious enough. I think in a leadership role, the critical step to managing failure is to have a strategy about trying a project at a small scale first. If it succeeds, you may then be able to bootstrap it up to a higher level. But some of these early experiments may fail and you have to learn from that too, because you have to decide where to prioritize your energy and resources. I think in some cases, the skills that one learns from science – trying smaller experiments, learning from them, and then developing a bigger research program – is somewhat applicable to leadership positions as well.

As a leader, how important are human relationships to you?

Oh, they are everything! A leadership position is, by definition, working with a group of individuals to motivate them towards some goal. So if that is the purpose, then human relationships are everything in that position. I think there are two components to a leadership position. One is the right idea; if you have the wrong idea, no matter how well you work with other people, it won’t be realized. But the other element is that you can have a good idea, but not know how to work with other people. And then that good idea will simply fail. So it has to be a combination of both.

So, how do you keep the people you work with happy?

It’s a very hard question. But I would say part of the answer to that question is that you have to make them feel like whatever work they are doing has meaning. People’s lives are more than just getting a paycheque and surviving; they want to feel like they’re doing something valuable with their time and their lives. So if one can motivate them to see the purpose in their work, I think that’s a good way to work with people.

The second element is that one has to understand everyone’s personal motivations in an organization. As a leader, everyone is not just working for you, you also have to be working for them. In other words, people have their own careers, their own aspirations, and they want to advance in their lives. I think a good leader has to understand that and part of their role should be about having people feel that the organization is also trying to help them in what they want to achieve. And if there’s a good synergy between the two, then it becomes a real win-win situation.

How do you deal with difficult situations or people who are difficult to work with?

Inevitably, when one works, there’s a myriad of personalities, some easier to work with and some relatively harder to work with. Part of the way you can work with people who are difficult is to be somewhat disarming. When one tries to be confrontational with people, it creates walls rather than bridges. If you’re so locked into your own point of view that you can’t even listen to another person, it doesn’t create an opportunity to try to understand where they may be coming from. So, at a minimum, trying to listen to other people is the first starting point.

Another way is trying to bring people to a higher level of common truth/​goal/​mission, something that everyone can agree on and use as a starting point. Sometimes people get very confrontational because they’re lost in some very small detail. And then these confrontations are really like arguing about a couple of trees in the forest. So one can bring people back a little bit and ask what is the big picture here? What are the things that we can agree on? And then you can use as a starting point for going forward.

How did you learn how to be a leader? How should a young person who aspires to be in a leadership role pick up such skills?

Well, that’s a great question. Like many things, there’s no substitute for experience. And I think taking on small leadership roles early is good. It’s the same way that science works. You don’t start your first science experiment planning to cure cancer, you start with a smaller project where you learn how to do an experiment, how to get results, how to interpret them, and then you move on to another experiment and so forth. We all have to walk before running and I think that’s true in leadership as well.

So one of the messages I really try to get across at the YIM meetings is that young scientists can start thinking of themselves as leaders now at some level. I think there is this misconception that leadership is for old people who are running things. Yes, one day you may get to that high up level where you do want to run something. But running something when you haven’t had the skill-building for leadership early becomes a very difficult experience.

One of the key goals of the YIM meetings is to impart this message that young people can make a difference. They can make a difference to their organization; they can make a difference to India as a whole. Young investigators, by definition, are in a leadership position: they have to lead people on their labs. But starting that skill-building when you’re a graduate student or postdoc is a very good thing to do and I would encourage people to do it. They may hear other advice from many senior faculty who will say that they should just focus on their experiments, but I think you can simultaneously take on leadership jobs that are small that don’t occupy that much of your time. And that is wonderful skill-building for things that you’re going to need later.

Leadership may sound like the weight of the world is upon you or that it’s going to take a huge amount of your time or that it might be this heavy responsibility. I would like to convey the opposite message — that it can be really fun and it comes with gratification because you’ve done something that has made other people happy. And it can also come in small, manageable steps that allow you to do these things in the context of whatever busy life you may have.

To sum up, what do you think is the most important principle of leadership?

Well, in my view, leadership should be more than just something on your CV. I think its ultimate goal should be viewed as creating a common good for other people. In that sense, leadership comes with both responsibility and gratification. It may be seen as a promotion, it may be seen as career advancement, but I think those should be secondary outcomes, not the primary reason why you’re taking on that role.

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Program Manager - Science Communication