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Adopting Habits of Effective Lab Leadership

Leadership is driven through a series of important actions in the lab

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Leadership is a vital component of effective lab management. Too often the actions of effective leadership are deprioritized compared to the scientific roles and needed activities of managing the lab and its operations. However, effective leadership is defined by how the lab manager interacts with lab staff. People need to have faith in their managers, and the best way to develop and retain that faith is through conscious actions of leadership.

Management guru Peter Drucker said, “Management is doing things right, and leadership is doing the right things.” Many of the right things involve how we interact with our staff, and the quality of our decisions, which directly impact how they deliver the science of the lab. To do things right requires that you do the right things as the leader of the organization.

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There are many different approaches to effective leadership, but all of them have some common leadership actions that drive the interactions and enable us to consistently do the right things. Below is a list of some of the most important leadership actions.

Traits of an effective leader


“If you care, they’ll care” is the tagline of Melanie Klinghoffer, business consultant and motivational speaker. Caring about people is often reciprocal. The more you care about the people in the lab, the more likely they will care about the science, stakeholders, mission of the lab, and you. It is important that you act to demonstrate you care, that the caring doesn’t just occur in your head, but has clear actions around the lab that others can see and hear. Caring can be demonstrated in many ways. A few simple examples include greeting staff by name, thanking people for their contributions, and taking the time to listen and exchange ideas.


Listening is your most important communication skill. Effective leaders are good listeners. Listening enables you to learn about what’s happening in the lab, what’s going well, and where the problems lie. Make the effort to try to learn something from everyone. Listening also allows you to build better relationships with the staff, which enables them to trust you with their ideas, problems, and observations. You don’t learn much while talking. You’ll learn significantly more while listening.

Make decisions

Lab staff rely on you to make the right decisions to enable the lab to be successful. It is vital that you make the required decisions in a timely way. Unlike the decisions you have made as a scientist, the lab manager needs to make decisions with insufficient information and in short amounts of time. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any time of decision, the best thing you can do is make the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Most of the decisions we need to make can be corrected or amended. Avoiding or procrastinating decisions will rob you of the respect of staff, harm your work relationships, and lead to problems for the lab. 

Build constructive relationships

As a lab manager, you need a wide range of work relationships. There are many people who provide you with input to help with the science and the operations of the lab. It is vital that you prioritize the well-being of staff and stakeholders so that you can rely on them for ideas and support to address the challenges the lab faces. Some actions that can help reinforce positive work relationships include supporting individuals even when providing constructive criticism, seeking win/win negotiated solutions, resolving conflict while maintaining the self-esteem of others, and taking the time to learn about individuals as people, not just as roles.

Be humble

The most important function of the lab manager is to enable the lab to thrive and flourish. This is best accomplished when you enable the staff to thrive and flourish. Prioritize actions that lead to the best results rather than just the things that enable you to personally win. There are several actions that humble leaders regularly do, including asking for help, taking action to reduce negativity in the lab, showing gratitude, and recognizing the efforts and successes of others. Demonstrating humility brings greater cohesion to the staff and helps create a successful work environment.

None of these important leadership actions cost any money or need to be included in budget planning. All they require is for you to commit time and effort to taking these actions around the lab. A great way to demonstrate this kind of leadership is by managing by walking around. Take the time to get out into the lab, interact with the staff, and commit to these leadership actions.

If you’d like to learn more on lab management and how to be an effective leader, please visit the Lab Manager Academy to explore our courses

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