Challenges in Leadership: The Big Leap


I worked last week with a group of scientists and clinicians. Their mission is to understand, prevent and treat autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. The goal of this day-long meeting was to figure out what the faculty could do to best achieve their mission.

One scientist talked about specialization. “We are very specialized in our individual research,” she said. “That’s how we win our grants and get money. And we are becoming increasingly specialized.  It’s like the expanding universe. All our stars are flying farther apart from each other.”

“That’s very true,” said another scientist. “Yet to be effective in solving this very complex puzzle, we need to get closer to each other. We need to build understanding of what each of us is learning. Bridging that gap is our biggest challenge.”

Another person jumped in. “In my last project, we put together an inter-disciplinary team. We met twice each week as a team. At first I hated having so many meetings. But that project yielded surprising and important breakthroughs in understanding how our immune system affects early childhood development. Communication was key to our success.”

“That’s right,” another person said. “The breakthroughs occur when we understand what happens at three levels – behavior, development, and biology. We need to bridge those gaps.”

“But that’s a huge leap,” another person said. “Each of those is a different world with a different history and protocols and language. How can we possibly do that?”

People make the same leap when they become leaders, I said. When people are promoted into leadership roles, they have to rethink how they add value. The biggest leap is understanding the importance of communication. Those who succeed as leaders build good systems of communication. They make sure there’s enough communication so that everyone understands how they can best work together and achieve the organization’s goals.

“So who is responsible for that here?” someone asked.

“Good question,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I guess we all are.”

“So how can you build systems of communication?” I asked.

People started to toss out ideas. Within an hour, we had identified five new strategies to build communication. The faculty agreed to try all of them. They also agreed to meet each quarter to assess how well they were communicating. I was happy. They were making the leap.

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