Thursday, March 3, 2011

What is the most common personality trait of leaders in chemistry organizations?

Don't you remember? I was captain of the team.
Photo credit:

If you spend any amount of time in chemistry, it doesn't take long before you realize the different personality types that populate the laboratory jungle. Most of us, for one reason or another, aren't particularly extroverted. Sure, there are our moments when we pop out of our shells or that we decide that here, now, we're going to make our stand on some issue. But that's the exception, rather than the rule. The vast majority of chemists in any gathering or organization will keep their mouths shut, even in the face of the most angering statements or the most heartfelt pleas for feedback.

At the same time, you do see people who have a certain amount of personal force*, who are assertive in their speech and confident in their actions. Oddly (or perhaps not), they're the folks who always seem to end up in industry management and leadership.

In my experience, this personality trait is not limited to Casper Van Diem's (see right) gender. I have worked for a few women in my time in industry; they were just as self-confident as any man might be.

So here's my lab postulate of the week: in any gathering or organization of chemists, the agenda is most likely to be set not by the most productive or competent person, but by the most outspoken or extroverted person present.

Readers, what do you think? Am I right or wrong?

*To borrow a phrase from "The Godfather."


  1. I think some of the traits that might draw people to science - a craving for certainty, openmindedness toward multiple options, and a deep fear of being wrong - are incompatible with traits required for leadership in a corporate environment, where quick decisions have to be made and mistakes will inevitably occur.

  2. whoa. Don't "a craving for certainty.... and a deep fear of being wrong" ...contradict "openmindedness toward multiple options" ??.

  3. Hm. The open-minded part of me wants to admit that you have a point, but the bossy part of me wants to tell you to stop bothering me with these nitpicky details.

  4. I think it's the deep fear of being wrong that makes a lot of people make some serious mistakes.

  5. I think I may disagree a bit with your postulate with caveat dependent on the purpose for the gathering or organization and how one views leadership. Since you are talking chemists will start with assuming some type of technical motivation and therefore in those cases productivity and competency will be weighed heavily amongst those present (who are chemists and likely place high value on such). That is not say the most outspoken/extroverted will not be more likely to attempt to dominate discussions or assume a mantel of leadership but the real leaders will often be recognized and followed by the majority even if they are more silent types.

    In the more general sense I do think you are correct as when it come to vast majority of management those with personal force seem to advance most quickly, frequently regardless of competency, because more in tune with traits considered required by executives (who fit that mold themselves and are thus more comfortable together). It's a rare combination to find in a single individual who is a strong scientist with necessary people and/or business skills to lead a scientific company or even large research group. The best leaders recognize their own short coming and then seek advice/collaboration with those who can fill the voids.

  6. @ James & Anonymous - I would argue that "openmindedness toward multiple options" does not contradict "craving for certainty" and "fear of being wrong". In fact, I think they incite each other. Our awareness of the multitude of possible answers (and thus overwhelming recognition of how little we know) feeds the fear that we will be wrong, and teases the craving for certainty.

    We want to be certain, but because we're open-minded we know that there are a ton of options, so we fear being wrong if we give in to certainty.

    : ) I may have just confused myself.

  7. I'm in a small group. We have one chatterbox (1 yr my senior), one semi-chatterbox (2 yrs my junior) and me. Unfortunately The Boss is a chatterbox as well. I have once watched The Boss and Chatterbox have an argument for 40 minutes where they actually agreed and wouldn't listen to the other side long enough to realise it. Meetings are a weekly torture.

    Unfortunately Semi-Chatterbox is also a bullshitter so I had been demoted to sitting in meetings and every 10-15 minutes stepping in to say "that's not accurate" or something on similar lines. I suspect each of them will go far if they can just shut up long enough to apply themselves to their work.

  8. Sharon - I think you've got your argument spot on. I just wish I could have pointed this out to a previous line manager of mine who was not so open-minded and therefore of the belief that certainty was easily obtained. It led to many frustrated discussions!


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20