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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Chaperone Leadership

An insightful parallel between bosses and biology

The more I research how life sciences companies work, the more I see the parallels between businesses and biology.

This week, as I crunched data for a new piece of research on leadership, another link emerged. It is both academically interesting and practically useful, so let me do my usual thing of rambling into the science on the way to something you can use.

Leadership guff

There’s a huge amount of guff written about leadership. Whenever I see one of those ‘leadership is....’ memes on LinkedIn, I can be pretty certain that what is going to follow is going to be platitudinous drivel with no evidence behind it.

Even in the more substantial academic literature, it’s hard to pin down what leadership is or to identify what great leadership is. There are two reasons for that. First, we talk about leadership as if it were the same in any business.

While I’m prepared to accept a few shared basics, the idea that leading Novartis is the same as leading McDonalds seems preposterous. Second, much writing focuses on personality and who leaders are. I’ve found leaders to be so different that I can’t accept that there is a ‘leader personality’. Reading books about leadership leaves one thinking that the whole field has fallen for the myth of the hero leader. I think that that’s just not correct.

Leadership is a verb

My dissatisfaction with the leadership guff has pushed my work towards focusing on what leaders, and leadership teams, do in the exceptional context of the life sciences industry. There have been lots of useful findings and if you want the full story, let me nudge you towards ‘Leadership in the Life Sciences’ on Amazon and the accompanying video on YouTube.

A big, central finding was that, in our business, two of the commonly held models of leadership don’t really hold true. We tend not to have hero leaders like Steve Jobs. Truth is, our business and science are too difficult for anyone to manage in such an autocratic way. And nor does the opposite idea that our leaders are ‘servants’ hold up to empirical study. The complexity of the life sciences, the inherent uncertainty and the risks of getting it wrong mean that we do need decisive leaders.

Decisive facilitators

By speaking to lots of industry leaders, I found that their leadership habits were best described as ‘decisive facilitators’. They find ways to draw sense from complexity and then act as the nucleation point for that sense to crystallise into a decision.

That’s the big picture anyway. Of course, what’s really interesting is the cluster of capabilities they develop and employ to enable them to be ‘decisive facilitators’. I don’t have space here to describe all of them, but they include the capabilities to focus on the sources of uncertainty and reduce it, to encourage focus on corporate, not departmental, goals and to dovetail critical activities that live in different organisational silos.

Dynamic leadership

The purpose of good science is, in part, to see connections between things. In this case a connection emerged that these capabilities were all invisible outside the organisation.

They acted to shape and integrate other capabilities, the outcomes of which could be seen in what the company did. In the jargon, these are known as dynamic capabilities, first written about by David J Teece. But it was at that point in the research when I realised that leaders’ capabilities were of the dynamic variety, that I once again saw the connection between business and biology.

Chaperone leadership

In my work, the analogues of genes are organisational routines and they work together to express capabilities, the analogue of proteins. The molecular biologists among my readers will be familiar with chaperone proteins, which help other proteins fold in the right way to perform their function. At the same time, they prevent proteins from aggregating into non-functional units. Can you see the parallels?

The capabilities that leaders perform don’t do anything of direct use, their role is to help other functional capabilities to work correctly and not to get tangled up into a dysfunctional mess. The analogy is really quite elegant. It is also practically useful. Thinking of leadership as a set of chaperone capabilities that act on other, more visibly useful, capabilities helps us in three ways. It reminds us that it’s what leaders do, not who they are, that matters.

It reminds us that they have a kind of catalytic role, rather than having to be a direct part of the business process. And it reminds us that effective business is always the result of coordination rather than due to some single, heroic act in any one function. Not a bad result for a single analogy.

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at

18th December 2020

From: Research


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