Leadership begins with … character.

The October 1 post said we’d get around to the topic of leadership. Well, we’ve arrived!

Our starting point? Actually, it’s a bit different from what I’d envisioned then.

What’s changed in the meantime? To answer that fully requires going back a couple of years.

The occasion was a big NOAA stakeholders meeting. NOAA leadership had invited maybe a couple of hundred folks for a full day of discussion. They gave us several bursts of information in plenary, but our time together included a couple of breakout sessions. At one of these, I found myself sitting at the same table as a fellow by the name of Michael Kerrigan. Mike is the founder and principal of Kerrigan & Associates, which he describes in his own words as a “management consulting and advocacy firm focused on creating business opportunities in the private-public sector.”

There was something about him! It was a pleasure listening to his observations during the day. At the end, we exchanged business cards and not long afterwards I asked for some of his time. He was gracious enough to host me for a couple of visits. In our conversations he suggested a prodigious amount of reading (still haven’t gotten through it all!). Along the way, he indicated that he was a year or so away from making a change in his work’s focus. I got the impression he intended to move away a bit from advocacy on behalf of others, and put more time and energy on some “legacy” issues (his term, left more-or-less undefined as I recall).

Anyway (jumping ahead here to keep an already-long story from ballooning totally out of control), we lost contact until just recently. I thought I’d Google his name and maybe get back in touch. When I did, a blog popped up – The Character Building Project – with the avowed purpose “to foster character building in a rising generation of political aspirants by sharing the stories of successful and ethical leaders who currently serve others in government, public and private sector careers.” The blog builds on a book Mike has written entitled 10 Characters with Character: Politics and Principle. Mike hadn’t been daydreaming! He delivered on his promise! He, like his subjects, has demonstrated character.

I bought the book, and took it along with me on a recent business trip. My original thought was to dip into it a bit so I’d be able to report to Mike that I’d done so. But…surprise! I found it truly fascinating from beginning to end. [Can I honestly say I couldn’t put it down? No – because I did, once. I read the first half on a flight from DC to Salt Lake City; then got swept up in my meeting. Read the second half three days later on the return flight. Those two travel days went quickly!]

What makes the book so good? First and foremost was the substance. Mike’s thesis is that the most important attribute for success in politics is character: the basic virtues of honesty, integrity, loyalty, industriousness, courage (not being exhaustive here but you get the idea). A few bad apples (every field has them – even science) foster a public stereotype of politicians that doesn’t do the profession justice. Mike manages to turn this around. But instead of hitting the reader over the head with 250-300 pages of dogma, Mike tells ten stories. He selects five Republican and five Democrat friends, and allows the readers to tour their lives. Each is extraordinarily successful. You’ll have heard of some, though not all. But you realize that his ten subjects, even though remarkable, are representative. He could have chosen another ten, and another, and so on…and found a similar thread of character governing their lives and decisions, and actions.

Mike then juxtaposes their answers to a series of provocative questions. What a great format! And he makes it easy for the reader with a nice crisp writing style.

Mike’s focus was politics. But reading the book made me wonder about whether, and how, we could tell a similar story about scientists.

The short answer is that of course we could. You and I know a little of the formative years and events in the lives of many colleagues we respect and admire, for far more than their scientific achievements. But who would we pick, and why? And do we believe that scientists as a group face the temptations, the pressures, the character-testing challenges that politicians do? [I’d welcome your answers to both these questions.]

Here’s one I would put in such a book – just to give the flavor. He was born in China. When he was only seven, his parents were forcibly relocated to the countryside in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. His uncles, aunts, and cousins were so terrified that they shunned him. So, from age seven until he reached adulthood, he lived alone (!) in his parents’ cold, empty, unprotected home in the city, foraging for a little food to keep going, fighting to survive a day at a time. His childhood acquaintances who had suffered a similar fate (and there were many such during this terrible time) were thrown in prison for theft, or succumbed to drug use, or both. They’re either dead or working menial jobs. But he persevered, got education through the Ph.D. level in Europe, has written hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, and today heads a major international scientific organization. He’s the nicest, quietest, most honorable character (Mike’s usage) you’d ever hope to meet.

But the longer answer is not quite so simple. Most of us haven’t been tested like this. We had the good fortune to be born into loving families and stable social settings where our scientific interests could flourish.

The exceptions? With the politicization of science, they’re starting to be more common. Take climate scientists. For some of them, the consequences of their work have been horrific. Hate mail. Threats. Other forms of hounding, ranging from the disgusting to intimidating legal actions by elected government officials. As our science has started to matter more, and as the times have grown more urgent, the gloves have come off.

Scientists will find Mike Kerrigan’s book and the people in it both interesting and inspiring. But they’ll also see in this book a preview of coming attractions.

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One Response to Leadership begins with … character.

  1. Bill,

    Your review of my book accurately reflects my mission of character building. Moreover, your notion of applying the “Plutarch-like biographical technique” to scientist is a wise one. I will ring you to see how I might support your endeavor. Thank you for your kind remarks about Politics with Principle: Ten Characters with Character as well as plugging the Character Building Project.

    Mike

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