Liberate scientists to do science, not to try to lead.

July 12, 2023 by Joshua
in Leadership

Consider a team sport like the Americas Cup, where technology plays a major role. The winning boats have long needed to be at the leading edge of ship design, requiring aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, materials science, and more. Today with the foils, people describe the boats as flying more than sailing. Many skills to pilot these ships didn’t exist a generation ago.

The scientists and engineers who design the ships are part of the team. They and the sailors need to communicate with each other their needs, goals, and limitations, especially the skippers. Since nothing happens without the ship, you could say everything begins with them.

Do we expect the ship designers of the Americas Cup to win the race? No, they work with the athletes, funding sources, and so on, but their skills aren’t relevant to skippering the boat. They train in equations, computers, and so on.

By contrast, the athletes train in trimming sails, navigating routes, and strategizing routes. We expect the people who train in the relevant skills to do the relevant actions. Skippers skipper, not engineers. Each team member collaborates and learns from each other, but they don’t do each other’s job.

So why do we expect scientists, teachers, and politicians to lead? It’s madness to.

Can you imagine if the people who designed the Americas Cup ships skippered them? They’d lose.

Can you see why humanity is losing on sustainability?

While nobody can know all the science, with a PhD in physics, reading about the science regularly, and talking with scientists, I know the science of the environment and sustainability better than average. Can you see why I’m practicing leadership instead of doing more science or engineering?

Historically, scientists discovered the problems and predicted their growth. That makes sense. It even makes sense that they would suggest solutions and we would ask them for advice. It doesn’t make any more sense that scientists could lead than boat engineers could pilot an Americas Cup boat to win.

They wouldn’t know how to start. They’d more likely puke and capsize than get anywhere. Even if they learned to pilot, they wouldn’t come close to competing successfully. But no one would ask them to pilot because the team doesn’t benefit from their losing their edge in the science. Sure, they should go on the boat to experience the results, but not to compete in a race.

Humanity has no pilots on our sustainability racing boat.

If we want effective leaders, we should look not to the world of science for leadership but leadership—coaches, conductors, heads of successful organizations. They should know some science. It helps for scientists to know some leadership. We should look for role models in successful past leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Dwight Eisenhower, and people like them.

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