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10 Leaders, 10 Questions: Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay

Shreya Ghosh

Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay is currently the director of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata. She received the Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Science in 2017 and was the second woman scientist to receive the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Engineering Sciences (2010). Her other accolades include the Young Scientist Award from the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in 2000, the Young Engineer Award from Indian National Academy of Engineers (INAE) in 2002, the Swarnajayanti Fellowship from the Department of Science and Technology in 2006, the JC Bose Fellowship in 2017 and the TWAS Prize in 2018 . We recently had the opportunity to chat with her regarding her thoughts on leadership.

10 L10 Q Sanghamitra 2

What role does able leadership play in scientific/​academic environments?

Strong and able leadership naturally plays a very important role in a scientific organisation because science works well when many people work together, collaborate, and have mutual respect for one another. And that comes when the leader also shows respect to all the people working in the institution. In addition to that, if the leader is herself/​himself academically very sound, then s/​he also attracts a lot of respect and recognition by the virtue of the science that s/​he does. When you are running a scientific organisation, you are leading not just the scientists, but also the supporting staff, the students – everyone who works in the organisation. So the leader should be a role model to all of these people and make sure to take them along on her/​his journey. 

The leader has to be above petty allegations and should consciously ensure that the integrity of their actions is not doubted. 

For a scientific organisation, the vision – what the scientific organisation wants to be down the line – must be strongly established. And then the scientific work that goes on in the institution has to be nudged to go in that direction. Science cannot be regimented – you cannot say you have to do this” or you cannot do that”. You cannot stop scientists from doing what they like to do. At the most, you can say that this is important, this is what the country needs, this is where science is going these days etc., but you cannot do anything beyond that. Instead, it is very important for a leader to be able to create an environment where the research naturally moves in that direction, perhaps with a slight nudge now and then – an environment where there is a healthy competition and whatever comes out of it takes the institution towards the vision which has been established. 

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

For a scientific organisation, in particular, the leader should be a reputed academician/​scientist who is known for the strength of their science. The other quality which is an absolute must is very high level of integrity. The leader has to be above petty allegations and should consciously ensure that the integrity of their actions is not doubted. Of course, there will always be people who are dissatisfied, but one’s own conscience should be absolutely clear that one’s actions have been in the best interest of the institution. The actions taken should be very rational and should be backed up by strong logic. 

The leader also has to be fair, to everybody – friends or foes – and must also be seen to be fair. It is important to have that transparency, to demonstrate that there’s fairness. A leader should also be willing to listen to others, but make decisions on their own. It is very important to listen to others, because with one brain, one mind, there’s only so much that you can think of. With five people coming together, you are exposed to different opinions and views, and it is important to be flexible enough to accommodate those. 

And finally, a leader has to learn to say no. They should always be trying to find a solution, to facilitate things, but at times when saying no is important, the leader should be able to say no. 

When did you first realize that you are on a path towards leadership? 

No, actually I never realized that. I realized only when my selection [as the director of ISI] was announced. I had been nominated for the position, but had not expected my selection. I had very clearly stated that if the institute gives me a responsibility, I will not turn away from that challenge, but I will not go running behind that opportunity. In fact, when my selection as the director was announced in 2015, many people in my own institution did not know who I was. That was the day when I realized that, yes, I’m now on the way to leading this institution. I decided that I have to give it my best shot. So, whatever I did, I did it to the best of my capability.

What do you consider your biggest successes or failures and what have these taught you?

There’s nothing like a biggest success or a biggest failure. There have been successes, there have been failures, but nothing that I can quantify as such. By nature, I’m never too happy with successes and never too sad with failures. What has always mattered to me is whether I’ve given it my best shot or not. And once I have done that, I take the results as they come, whether they are successes or failures. But not giving up is something which has been very important to me.

Old institutions have very fixed mindsets and changing mindsets is much, much more challenging than building buildings.

Over the years, there have been a number of successes as well as failures. My institution is very theoretical research-oriented. To me, that is very important, but at the same time, looking outwards is also important. I’ve been trying to get more industry collaborations and get more of my colleagues interested in industrial applications. I have tried to set up facilities, instruments, cells and departments which can facilitate such interactions. Seeing this interaction with the industrial world grow is something I was quite happy with. And as for failures, there have been many instances I have tried to do something, but because of certain problems, I was not able to achieve it.

Of course, it’s important to me that when I leave my office, I leave the institution in a better position than when I took up this responsibility. I have always tried to do that. Old institutions have very fixed mindsets and changing mindsets is much, much more challenging than building buildings. In that too, there have been successes and failures. Overall, I would say that I have tried my best and I’m not unhappy.

Is this a skill that you feel scientists should learn, how to take successes and failures in their stride?

Oh, certainly, I think everybody has to learn that. When you are successful, if you look around, you will find people who have achieved greater things. If you fail and you look around, you will see people who have had greater failures than you. So, you need to remember that your experience is not the end of it. This will give you a proper perspective, which I think not only scientists, but everybody should imbibe. I think this mindset is also important just from a social point of view, as this helps people to not get depressed. It’s also important to be able to celebrate successes, which, to some extent, I don’t. But then, I’ve been fortunate because some of my successes, many others have celebrated. It’s important to present role models in front of the young, in particular. 

How much value do you give to human relationships?

Oh, human relationships are extremely important. Human relationships are what an organisation is built on, because an organisation is not the set of buildings that we have, it’s the humans that work in them. And especially in research organisation like ours, there are scientists, but there are also non-scientists – the administrative staff, accounts staff, etc. It’s very important for them to also realize the role that they’re playing – that without them, the science that we are doing would not happen. They are facilitating research, and if they believe that, then they will have more involvement in whatever they are doing. 

In this institution, we have, to a large extent, been able to maintain these human relationships. We have a family-like environment where the interaction between the faculty, the students, and the non-scientific staff is very open and friendships are quite strong. In organisations like ours, the official hierarchies are limited to the administrative staff section. Among the faculty, there is no such strong hierarchy, it’s quite flat. So, there, unless the human relationships are very strong and understanding is clear, work quality will suffer. These relationships are very important and have to be nurtured.

How do you keep your team happy and motivated?

As a supervisor, when it comes to my research students, we have regular talks and get-togethers. With the pandemic, it’s been a challenge to have the students on the campus. It’s very important that a research group works together, not just in the form of collaborations, but also in the form of just talking to each other and having a good time together. It is also the supervisor’s primary responsibility to see that the research team is happy and that if there are problems that the students are facing, they can share them openly. 

[An] important part of keeping your team motivated is telling them I value you”…

But as an institution leader, the team is so big. When you look from the institute’s point of view, the team is huge. And not everybody will be with you always. As an institution head, first of all, you need to know all the people – that’s very important. There will also inevitably be times when you have to turn someone down due to certain rules, regulations, bureaucratic hurdles etc. It’s important to be able to explain why you were not able to do something at those times. If you are not able to say yes to something, but if you’re able to explain the reason behind this decision, then I think people often agree and are reasonably happy. You can also try to facilitate and find ways to help such people while working within the rules. After all, as the leader of a scientific institution, your main role is to see that science flourishes. So, it is important that the leader creates an environment where the scientists can do their science well. 

Another important part of keeping your team motivated is telling them I value you” – that you value their contribution, you value what they are doing, you value them for whoever they are, irrespective of successes or failures. 

How do you deal with difficult situations or difficult people?

I try to explain my reasoning. If someone is unhappy, then they’re unhappy for some particular reason. What I have always tried to do is to explain my point of view clearly to that person. Of course, while many people understand after receiving an explanation, there’s a small percentage who fail or refuse to understand even if they see your logic. There’s not much you can do in such cases. You view it as living in a family. There are many types of people in a family, and not everyone may be happy with you always. But you don’t exclude anyone for that reason, you move on with everybody and you take care of everyone. I think we have to take everybody along and demonstrate fairness, which I have always tried to do. There have been people who have been publicly unhappy with me, but I apply the same yardstick to them as to everyone else.

How and where did you pick up the leadership traits/​skills that were necessary to bring you where you are now? 

I learnt them on the job. It was what I call a baptism by fire” – I was pushed into the water and I learned to swim. I had no particular experience and no particular training before that point. There were certain characteristics, maybe, which helped me adapt to the role. Being a quick learner, being able to take everybody along, even when they are not in agreement with you, knowing how to say a firm no etc. are some such characteristics. And as I said earlier, you learn from your failures as well as from your successes. Now that I’m on my second tenure, I can apply some of the training I received on the job in my first tenure. 

What, according to you, is the most important principle of leadership?

The single most important principle, if you ask me, is to be fair to everybody. Your own conscience should be clear that any action you have taken, any decision you have made, you have tried to be as fair as possible. It is also important to be extremely logical and rational in decision making. 

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Program Manager - Science Communication