After almost 20 years of watching academic leaders build and manage research programs, I categorize all leadership approaches into one of two models:
- Departmental leadership
- Principle investigator leadership
Departmental leadership stems from base funding that provides for core faculty positions. Not only departments have this type of funding, but also many other organizational structures, and notably research centers with some longevity that has allowed them to develop such base funding. With this type of funding the departmental leader can build an organization that fits with a particular mission. If the mission is to create an organization that contributes to innovative research and education in bioinformatics, then the departmental leader has some leeway to hire core faculty in bioinformatics. Typically the departmental leader will shape the specifics of the mission to their own perspectives gained from their past education, research and service. Sticking with the bioinformatics example, the departmental leader may decide to focus on structural or systems biology because they have particular interest in this area and recognize this is an area with much research potential in the future since it may be clear that funding agencies are prioritizing the importance of these fields. The area may also be one in which students increasingly have the aptitude and interest in pursuing. Maybe most important, the departmental leader may recognize that many of the resources that are available to support the development of this area are already on campus. The bioinformatics program needs resources on campus that have the potential to produce the biological data that can be analyzed, or a systems biology effort would require campus resources that provide mathematics and computer science expertise to collaborate in the development of the research programs of the core faculty.
Departmental leadership is most effective when developing an existing organization. By promoting the mission of this organization, the departmental leader increases the amount of funds for supporting core faculty, builds the reputation of the organization, and supports the education of future leaders according to the mission. The departmental leader is most effective when their primary function is in motivating existing faculty to support the mission and succeed at their own personal missions for education, research and service. Their ability to move the organization towards a reputation in a particular discipline is dependent upon their ability to gain a consensus among the faculty about the mission of the organization, and then to obtain that mission through faculty recruiting and the support of the faculties efforts in education, research and service.
Principle investigator leadership stems from a mission based on subject matter expertise and the funding that expertise attracts. This seems to be the most effective model for leadership in developing new education, research and service initiatives. In these cases, the principle investigator leader is the thought leader who takes ownership of an initiative. In many cases this principle investigator leader is hired from outside the institution to build the initiative, but that isn’t always the strongest strategy, particularly when the success of the initiative depends in large part on the existing resources of the institution. The principle investigator leader usually has an appointment as professor, and is rarely also the administrative head of a department, division, school, or college. In cases where the principle investigator leader is an administrator, they are usually administrators of research. This individual must have a reputation in the area that is being developed. The stronger the reputation, the more successful the initiative. A major component of the mission of the initiative will be in-line with this reputation and the principle investigator leader will lead many projects that could be considered “core” projects of the initiative. Other faculty affiliated with the initiative are collaborators on grants and contracts, or full-time research faculty frequently funded by the grants or contracts. These faculty usually will have some close connection to the leader’s area of interest, though they may be completely peripheral in that interest, being maybe focused on an area that was spun off from the principle investigator’s original efforts. Faculty in these organizations will initiate their relationship to the young initiative through collaborations or full-time roles on initiative-funded projects, and then develop their own, though related interests, obtaining funding for them to establish their own role as a principle investigator in the initiative.
Initiatives with longevity are composed of faculty affiliates and core faculty who have varying degrees of connection to the research of the leader, with the initiative held together by a mission and frequently one or two large “core” grants or gifts. These initiatives require the skills of a department leader, so either the original leader assumes this role by moving away from their function as key grant and contract principle investigator, or the individual focuses on continuing to build their own education, research and service activities and turns over the organization administration to a newly appointed individual with department leadership skills.