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Three Keys to Balancing Leadership and Management

Leadership and management require different skills and attention

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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Lab managers are responsible for both leadership and management of the lab. These two areas of accountability are different and often confused. A good way to distinguish them is with the quote from Peter Drucker, “Management is doing things right and leadership is doing the right things.” In many ways, management is about executing the lab’s mission properly around the science, safety, quality, and other lab operations. Leadership is often related to people decisions, establishing purpose, building community, and developing culture. Since management tasks are more closely related to the science practiced in the lab, many lab managers are more comfortable in this data-driven portion of their responsibilities. Leadership usually requires a more people-, values-, and principles-driven approach. Here are three things lab managers can do to improve their ability to balance their management and leadership roles:

#1 – Care

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Demonstrating caring for the people is an excellent step toward effective leadership. Caring about staff as people, not just resources, enables better leadership decisions. In addition, caring about the function of the lab and its effective operations enables better management decisions, which helps to get things done right. Caring also has the benefit of being reciprocal in most people. When the lab manager cares about them, staff are more likely to care about the work, the mission, their co-workers, and the lab leaders.  

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#2 – Make data-driven decisions

Using the available data will help lab managers make better decisions around both management and leadership topics. Including data in the decision-making process reduces bias, dilutes opinions, improves objectivity, generates better decisions, and enables better communication about the decisions. Most lab managers are experienced bench scientists and are comfortable analyzing data in their science. All of that experience with data can be applied to the decisions required in the lab manager role.

#3 – Listen

The lab team has significant knowledge and experience. Practice active listening and learn from them. Ask questions related to both doing things right and doing the right things, and apply what is learned to the needed decisions. Too many lab managers feel pressure to make every important decision for the lab independently. Unfortunately, this behavior eliminates input from the most important part of the lab, which is the people. All of the things they know, observe, and consider can help improve how the lab does things right, and does the right things.