Fifteen Minutes on Leadership – A Personal Perspective

Heidi Newberg, Keynote Address
Alpha Phi Omega regional leadership conference
Oct. 15, 2016

I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak on the topic of leadership. I get many invitations to speak about my astronomy research, and occasional invitations to talk about my experiences as a woman in physics, but this is the first time I have been invited to speak about leadership.

I have read few books on this topic. I have not studied leadership as an academic subject. And I don’t put myself forward as an expert in the practice of leadership. However, I have taken on many leadership roles, and it is from my own personal experiences with leadership that I will speak to you today – in fifteen minutes or less.

I am a leader in my research field, creating a better understanding of the Milky Way galaxy, in which we live. I led an international collaboration with a Chinese telescope project that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I was a leader in developing the software used in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a pivotal project in the history of astronomy that combined the talents of over 100 astronomers to produce the most accurate survey of the sky possible. I lead the MilkyWay@home volunteer computing project, to which more than 200,000 people from every country in the world have contributed computer cycles. I am the President of the Board of the Dudley Observatory. I lead my own research group. I lead the college courses that I teach. I am a leader in my church and in my role as a parent.

For me, the road to leadership begins with courage. It takes courage to raise your hand when someone asks who would like to run for office in a local organization. It takes more courage to run for public office. It also takes courage to ask, and to look for the answers to deep questions about the world around you.

At Rensselaer, we challenge our students to be courageous with the question: “Why not change the world?” In my research career, I have tried to answer questions like: “How much mass is there in the Universe?” “How did the Milky Way galaxy get here?” and “What is the nature of dark matter?” Well known historical leaders have challenged slavery and apartheid, fought for voting rights for women, and stuck to their own religious beliefs even when that meant risking their own lives, and the lives of their families. Other leaders have searched for better solutions to life’s daily problems, masterminding inventions like the telephone, the light bulb, and the assembly line, that eventually resulted in companies like AT&T, General Electric, and Ford. Each of these companies currently employs hundreds of thousands of people.

I remember one day sitting in the audience at a general meeting of members of my church, and listening to the plans to expand our worship space, which had become overcrowded. The plan was to knock out the wall behind the pulpit, turn pews around, move the organ, and end up with a space that looked more like a very large bowling alley lane than a community space where people come together in prayer. No one was excited by this plan, or wanted to pay for it. Most people expressed dismay at the plan or shook their heads, or did not want to get involved. I realized that I did not like the plan, and I started asking myself what a better solution would be. I got involved in the planning committee. I listened to the needs and dreams of other members of the church. And together we kept brainstorming different solutions until there was a consensus that got everyone excited. The new plan resulted in a successful fundraising campaign and a $2.5 million addition to the church that we are all proud of. In my case, the transition between onlooker and leadership began when I started to think about how I could contribute to solving the problem of needing a larger worship space. It takes courage to become a leader because you open yourself up to the possibility of ridicule and failure.

In my view the most important ingredient for successful leadership is purpose. My father used to tell me, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Due to the wonders of the World-Wide Web, I now know he was quoting Lewis Carroll. But what is the sense of leadership, or of following a leader, if the leader is not going anywhere in particular? I personally never take on a leadership role unless I believe that by taking that role on it will make a difference. Sometimes my purpose is to discover something about the Universe that no one else knows. Sometimes my purpose is to rejuvenate an organization, to champion a cause, to develop the potential of younger people, or to improve my own living conditions.

But once I take on the leadership role, I also take on the responsibility of leadership as best I can. If I win a $300,000 federal grant, I sign up to fulfill the promises made in the proposal. If I take on a research student, I take responsibility to help that student prepare for the next career steps. If I take on the role of president of the board of a non-profit, I take responsibility to see that organization through its next phase of planning and growth. Business leaders, and professors who run research groups, take on the responsibility of employment. If we do not succeed in selling our products, our employees lose their source of income. As leaders we take on responsibilities like these even though we cannot guarantee we will be able to fulfill all of the promises. This brings us back to where we started with courage. It takes courage to question your environment, to take on the mantle of leadership in its many contexts, and to accept responsibility without a guarantee of success.

Leadership success rests on many personal qualities and qualifications, but one that I rely on is creativity. Creativity is often associated with artistic pursuits. It is also discussed in the context of scientific discovery and invention. I am often surprised how little it is used in discussions of organizational leadership, administration, and parenting. In fact, it is a core skill of all successful leaders. As leaders, we take responsibility for a purpose, create plans to reach our goals, and then deal with unplanned obstacles to success.

Take even a simple junior leadership task of escorting an invited speaker to the room in which they will speak. Any number of unexpected obstacles could come up. It might be raining. The room number you were given might be incorrect. The door might be locked. It might turn out the speaker’s computer needs a special dongle to connect to the projector in that particular room. You might suddenly realize the need for a laser pointer. The audiovisual system might not be turned on when you arrive. The lav mic might be designed for a men’s button down shirt and is not compatible for your speaker’s attire. You might have to entertain the audience for a few minutes while technical problems are being addressed. Not that any of these things have ever happened to me… Leading a person to a destination is the simplest form of leadership, and even at that level one is expected to respond creatively to unexpected situations. On the spot, one must think through who might have an umbrella, key, dongle, or laser pointer, and how that person might be contacted. It might be necessary to delegate the task to another person who is judged to be responsible, so as not to leave the invited speaker unattended. It is a key identifying attribute of a leadership position that when there is trouble, others will look to the leader for direction. And it is a key attribute of a successful leader that he or she will creatively find a solution.

My final thought on leadership is one that took me a very long time, and some hard knocks, to learn. This thought is on the topic of how leaders are selected. Some leadership positions, such as government officials and club officers, are elected. Most leadership positions, such as officers of established companies, government staff positions, and university administrators, are appointed. When one starts a new company or non-profit, takes on a personal advocacy cause, or in most cases makes a decision to become a parent, the leader makes the decision to take that position on her own.

Given the choice, people will select as leaders people who they think will bring the organization in a direction that they want to go. It is natural for supervisors, and for the electorate, to entrust leadership to people whose backgrounds and experiences are similar to their own. Academics prefer other academics with similar training. All other things being equal, supervisors will more easily entrust lower level decisions to people who look like them, dress like them, have similar hobbies, have gone to similar colleges, have the same religion, know the same people, and have the same socioeconomic class.

This is not a tyranny of white people over black or men over women, but a judgment that people of all races, religions, or genders make about who they want to follow – or who they would like to be making the decisions. I hope you will agree with me that being invited to give this speech counts as having been selected for a leadership role. The person who invited me, who I suspect was involved in the selection, was an apparently Caucasian female with aspirations towards astronomy. I believe that these few similar traits were a factor in my being here tonight.

We are living in a time where the term “diversity” gets a tremendous amount of attention. It is recognized that teams composed of a diverse set of people -- from different backgrounds and with different talents – are more effective at solving problems and accomplishing goals. Quite a lot of effort has gone into creating gender, racial, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity in the university setting and in government. Many corporations have been addressing diversity in their workforce and in workforce development programs that prepare young people to work in their corporate environments.

However, ask yourself whether you would more quickly trust someone to have your back, and to make leadership decisions that you would agree with, if they were more similar to you or if they were different. I know that if I want the low-down on what is going on in a university or foreign country, I will often seek out a female physicist or astronomer, or alternatively a friend of a friend, because I know from my own experience that they are very likely to see me as a trusted comrade. Any past or current experience that creates a personal bond will also increase the degree to which people trust each other. Trust is an essential ingredient in selecting any leader.

Understanding the value of building relationships and knowing that trust is a two-way street is essential for mapping out a leadership career. If you do not trust your superiors, and especially if your superiors know that, then you will never move up in your organization. Why would they choose to promote you? It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, how hard you work, how experienced you are in leadership.

Leaders are only appointed if, in the judgment of the person appointing them, they will take an organization in the direction the appointers want to go. Government officials are only elected if the majority of the electorate believes they will take the city/state/nation in the direction the electorate wants to go. The electorate may assess the candidate’s platform, but they will also assess the candidate’s family background, beliefs, and personal influences. The candidate’s past experience and accomplishments seem to me to be in general less important influences in the election of government officials. At first this does not seem intuitive, but upon reflection it doesn’t matter how accomplished a leader is if that leader will take us in a direction we do not want to go.

What took me a very large part of my career to discover is the importance of choosing organizations, line management, and mentors who you respect, who respect you, and who will promote your professional advancement. I have, in my own personal assessment, performed below average in cultivating senior mentors. On the other hand, I have held many leadership positions and have been unusually successful in my career. So you might ask, “How is that possible?”

Some of us do not look like the people in power in our fields. Some of us do not think like the people in power in our fields. Some of us do not want to go in the direction that established leaders want to go. Some of us do not want to follow anyone but ourselves, and refuse to pretend to be someone we are not.

For those of us who march to our own drummer, we must make our own leadership positions. We are the people who start our own companies and non-profits, and who are the first to speak up when we perceive injustice. When I was a postdoc working on the software for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, I headed up many software projects. In every case, I became the head of the project because I just started doing it. I was never asked or appointed. I just took the initiative. I followed my own heart, my own thought process, and my own ambition.

Not everyone wants to be, or is comfortable with being a leader, and that is okay. But since all of you are here, you are at least thinking about and opening yourselves up to the possibility of leadership. I have talked about a few of the core parts of my own leadership style, but each of us develops our own style. I encourage you to practice leadership in areas that are meaningful to you, whether that is in corporate, government, or academic arenas, or within your own community or nuclear family. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you tonight.