Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Getting the right leadership culture 

A panel looking at the direction of Singapore’s scientific research effort has recommended more freedom for researchers.

To lure best research talent, offer R&D freedom
WHILE Singapore aspires to attract the best research talent here, it needs to go beyond luring them with money. It needs also to promise investigators the freedom to determine their own research agendas. This is a key step in developing a world-class research culture in Singapore, according to an international panel commissioned last year by the Ministry of Education to look into this need...
For a country that is famed for a top-down approach, the idea of giving researchers the freedom to set their own research agenda would be novel indeed. But as in most situations where the people being led are knowledge workers who are experts in their own fields, this idea is crucial for success. I think whether the idea can actually be implemented depends on who is put in charge of it (see “Managing research at A*STAR”).

Incidentally, Koh Buck Song, leadership expert at The Straits Times, wrote an article today in the newspaper titled “Having a feel for leadership”. In the article, he wrote about the importance of empathy in leadership. Drawing partly on the theory expounded in the book Leadership And Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute, he suggests that empathy is crucial to effective leadership.

Would empathy be the solution for managing researchers? I think it would help. In fact, when you are dealing with a bunch of brainy and egotistical researchers, it may be especially important. However, I don’t think it would be enough.

A leader who is directly overseeing a group of researchers — or any group of knowledge workers for that matter — should also have a relatively low need for control. In the real world, many leaders actually have a strong desire for control. In fact, the very idea of leadership in the minds of most people implies control. Many organisations are actually set up to promote people with strong control abilities into positions of leadership.

Unfortunately, when a leader with a strong need for control directs an expert in the latter’s work, a clash of opinions — and often of egos as well — is likely to result. Such an environment does not necessarily preclude good research. However, I think it is more conducive to good blogs (by mr brown’s criteria) than good research.

Singapore is a society that has been trying to promote creativity, diversity and entrepreneurship. It has an economy that is trying to increase its value-add, which in turn implies a greater level of specialisation and knowledge work. Such a society and economy needs a leadership culture that is just right for them.


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