Leadership in a Complex, Technology-Driven World

author: Rosalind Williams, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, (STS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Robert S. Langer, Department of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Robert Metcalfe, Polaris Venture Partners
author: Phillip A. Sharp, Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: May 21, 2010,   recorded: October 2005,   views: 4165
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Sometimes the best way to achieve leadership is by pursuing a vision or meeting some personal goals, these three top-flight technologists suggest.

Robert Langer admits, “I don’t tend to think of myself as a leader. I have simple ideas; I just want to see if I can do some good, and get satisfaction out of that.” He counts himself lucky to have gotten a job at Harvard Medical School, which allowed him to apply engineering to medical problems. “I wanted to see if we could make things that might help improve people’s health.” He attributes some of his leadership learning to years of struggle in acquiring grant money—in one case a 17-year battle with the NIH to back a novel drug delivery system (for which Langer was awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize in 2002).

Says Robert Metcalfe, “We have an idealization of innovative leadership—that it’s lovely. But the enemy is the status quo, and it’s resourceful and determined to defeat innovation.” Metcalfe’s personal style figures in his successes. He went to war against IBM in the 1980s, “when I had an invention that was better than what they had, and they threw all their monopoly resources against me. I was alone and surrounded and I beat them.” To make progress against the status quo, Metcalfe states, “you have to be obnoxious.”

Don’t forget schmoozing and team playing, reminds Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, who acquired much of his savvy moving through academic ranks at MIT and partnering with outside firms. “I like to set a goal – that I’d like to see this technology do that, or this scientific question answered.” While you must set goals and seize opportunities, he says, you also need to attract optimal talents to your environment and “get others to play the game.” These are skills, Sharp says, he learned in high school sports.

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