The Top Ten Qualities Of Scientist (Communicator) Leaders

Over the past few weeks, since we published “Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement” in PLOS, the voices of scientist communicators have rung out in blog posts – some personal perspectives and others calls to action. Even more chimed in on Twitter under the hashtag #reachingoutsci. These scientist bloggers are as diverse as their topics. I consider every one of them a leader.

Over the past 12 years as a communication trainer for the Leopold Leadership Program, and as a coach for many scientists, I have observed an intrinsic link between communication and leadership.  As I wrote in a past Nature Comment:

It’s no coincidence that environmental scientists who lead the pack, both within academia and beyond, are good communicators. These scientists know how to articulate a vision, focus a debate and cut to the essence of an argument. They can make a point compelling, even to those who disagree. They talk about their science in ways that make people sit up, take notice, and care.

I have also witnessed that, as scientists work toward becoming more effective communicators, they increasingly move into realms of leadership. When I look back at the early days and the scientists I have worked with this is evident in their trajectories. In a rough video clip I produced of a Leopold gathering in 2001 called “True Confessions: Coming Out of the Ivory Tower” (embedded below) the fellows reveal why they decided they needed to work on communicating their science. “True Confessions” now has the unforeseen impact of a “before” glimpse of many scientists who have increasingly risen to leadership.

When you stand up and speak out – to the media, or policymakers, or you write an opinion piece or blog post – it is like a drop of water hitting the surface. It sends out ripples with unexpected repercussions – often, good ones.  Doors may swing open, new opportunities may arise.  You will meet new people and make new connections. Yet there are also challenges. Being a leader also means learning how to deal with the criticisms that arise, and keeping on keeping on. One thing, however, is clear – putting yourself and your science out there is a form of practice, learning, and giving.  And, by giving in that way it will somehow come back to you… thus a spirit of good intent is important.

"Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects." Dalai Lama. Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” –Dalai Lama.
Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they are not necessarily flashy. There is no single way to be, no single destination. It’s really a process of exploration, experimentation and finding your own voice.

And while communication is a critical aspect of leadership, there are other qualities as well. Here are the 10 key attributes that I see in scientist leaders – scientists who are making their science matter:

1) They have a vision – and can articulate it.

2) They are passionate. But don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeve.

3) They work hard at communication… even if they make it look deceptively easy.

4) They are generous and think beyond their own work to support others.

5) They take risks and are willing to fail – sometimes publicly.

6) They are resilient. And pick themselves up and keep on going when they fall.

7) They are self-examining and adaptive.

8) They seek solutions. And address the “so what” so people care.

9) They have a fun factor or some kind of charisma – but are not necessarily extroverted.

10) They are persistent. Patience eventually pays off.

While these ten things make a leader, not everyone will have all of these qualities. But most, in my experience, have many. Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to know. And who, as a scientist communicator and leader, is currently inspiring you?


About Nancy Baron

COMPASS Science Outreach Director Nancy Baron coaches environmental scientists in communications and leadership, and is a co-lead for the Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science. Her book, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter is based on over a decade of experience working with leading scientists around the world. Find Nancy on Twitter at @Nancy_Baron


  1. Sumit Parakh says:

    Nice blog with nice vision… I enjoyed this article.

    I am agree with all 10 points but i would like to add some more points for being a good scientist–
    11) They try and try and try, they never give up..
    12) They are self-motivated and independent people.
    13) They try to invent their own solution if they don’t find any.
    14) They don’t believe in short-cuts, After all short-cuts will not bring them to think or to do something innovative.
    15) For a good scientist, the whole world is like an open library. They find solution not only in books, but they find(try to find) it in all living and non-living things. Because everything in this world is inter-related..

    “Now” I am a student and want to be a scientist. Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawkings inspire me a lot for physics, Dennis Ritchie for Programming, and Steve Jobs for his innovative inventions in Gadgets.

  2. Great!!
    I also want to add one point:
    Listening: Sounds so easy and yet so few people and managers do it.

  3. Dean D'Souza says:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson inspires me.

Speak Your Mind