Listening to President Obama's State of the Union speech last night prompted me to think about leadership and laboratory management. I found his theme of support for American innovation encouraging but without offering specifics. "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation," the President said. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business." However, he offered no guidance on how to do this.

The President rightly noted, "Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need." At this point I expected him to ask for a renewal of the now-expired R&D Tax Credit. However, he did not. Instead he promised to send Congress a budget calling for investments in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology - an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people. This is fine but what many companies need is an incentive to do their own research rather than hope someone else will do it for them.


Managers and leaders

Of course, the President is not the sole leader of the federal governenet. Leaders at other levels, including Congress, matter as well. Personally, I hope that Congress, even without presidential leadership, will take consider the issue of reviving the expired R&D tax credit.

Managers at all levels of any organization, including laboratories, matter. They set the tone and determine the culture at all levels of their organizations. In individual departments and across the organization, they can implement cultural changes or fight them. For example, it has become widely understood that the cost-cutting mentality of CEOs became absorbed at levels of the BP organization and contributed to oil spills in Alaska, refinery accidents at BP''s Texas City Refinery and elsewhere, and its Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico with its attendant loss of life, pollution and economic damage to many private citizens. Houston Chronicle business writer Loren Steffy has been following BP for many years in his business articles. These articles and his book "Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of Profit," lays much of the responsibility for BP's to an excessive emphasis on cost cutting and a high tolerance of safety and environmental risks. Steffy believes that leaders at all levels of BP need to work together to change the company's business culture. Lower level managers as well as CEOs can work to develop a culture that will remedy BP's deficiencies.


Managers and staff members

James Meindl, on the faculty of the State University of New York, formulated what he called "the romance of leadership." He concluded that top-level leaders get far more credit –and blame - than they deserve. It is easier and more emotionally satisfying to treat leadership as the only cause of poor performance than to consider other organizational and external factors that also organization performance.

Still, it is hard to deny the major role of managers in determining organization performance and health. This health can even include the individual health of employees. A Swedish study indicates that for more than 75% of employees dealing with their immediate supervisor is the most stressful part of their job. Even more shocking, the 10-year study of 3,122 men found that those with bad managers experienced 20% to 40% more heart attacks than their counterparts with good managers.