Lead, follow, or get out of the way: Shahid Jameel speaks to IndiaBioscience about Leadership
29 Aug 2019
Shahid Jameel, Chief Executive Officer of The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, has been active in science policy and administration for over two decades. He headed the Virology group at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, for 25 years. He is a recipient of numerous awards, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the BM Birla Science Prize in Biology. In this interview, he speaks to IndiaBioscience about his thoughts on leadership.
According to you, what are the key qualities of a leader?
I think the most important quality of a leader is to not be afraid of taking decisions. Leaders often come to situations where there is more than one possibility and they have to take an educated and informed decision. While consultation is important, adhering to majority or minority views is not. Leaders have to look for a long-term vision and use intelligent arguments to drive towards that vision. So, it’s not the majority view that always prevails and a leader needs to take responsibility for such decisions.
Another thing that I don’t hear being talked about enough is that leaders should be generous with their time and ideas, and get people to be comfortable with them. These, I think, are the key qualities of a leader.
When did you first realize that you are on a path towards leadership?
I can’t really point to a single incident. But, when I think back to when I was in school or in college, I was always trying to forge partnerships and resolve disputes. So, that was a start. And I guess I was a little headstrong as well; if I thought something was right, I’d stand by it.
There was a very small incident that happened when I was in school that I can laugh at now. When I was in ninth grade, I was suspended from my school for doing something that I actually didn’t do. They said, “If you own up to it, the punishment will be lenient.” I said, “If I have not done it, I’ll not own up to it.” So I was suspended from school for two weeks. And then they realized that I hadn’t done it and they called me back. So, yeah, I was a little headstrong. If I felt that what I was thinking was right, then I’d stick to it.
What do you consider your biggest successes and what have these taught you?
I consider building the Virology Group at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) my biggest success. I was 31 years old when I was asked to build a group and lead it. It was an immense challenge. I had just finished my postdoc and I had even got a faculty position in USA, just a few months before I received the ICGEB offer.
"There is nothing better than investing in good people. People are the most important part of any enterprise."
But this offer was too good to say no. I thought that if I became an assistant professor in the US, then I’d become an associate professor, then a full professor, and so on. I would be one amongst many. Here was an opportunity to actually create something, if I had a vision. Yes, it would not be safe. But it was a wonderful learning opportunity.
So, I would count that as my biggest success. I think what it has taught me is that opportunities don’t come every day. When they come, you should have the ability to recognize them and take them on.
The second thing I learned is that there is nothing better than investing in good people. People are the most important part of any enterprise. Money will come today and go tomorrow, but if you have good people, you will always be successful. So I’ve tried to have teams around me of good, competent people. That is the biggest lesson that I’ve learned.
What are some instances where you faced failure, and what have these taught you?
Oh, there have been many instances of failure. But you shouldn’t let failure deter you from doing things, from taking decisions, from moving forward. Sure, a wrong decision can set you back. That’s fine, as long as you learn something from that failure and you don’t repeat the same mistakes again.
"The only people who don’t make mistakes are dead people."
So yes, there have been many, many failures and I can’t really say that this has been the biggest failure. But on balance, I think things worked out more towards success than failure. I would simply say, don’t let failure deter you. The only people who don’t make mistakes are dead people. So, go ahead, make mistakes, and learn from them.
How much value do you give to human relationships?
I think human relationships are everything. To move ahead in life, you cannot step over people to climb up the ladder. Because, if you are climbing over someone to move up, you are going to meet them on your way down. So, human relationships are everything. And this is something very dear to me.
How do you keep your team happy and motivated?
First of all, value them, show them that you care. They should have the confidence that if they make mistakes or mess up, you are there to protect them. I think that’s key to giving confidence to young people. This is something I was very fortunate to have in my own career. I’ve had mentors who allowed me to explore, to make mistakes, and who stood by me. It’s important to show people you care, to hear them out, and to show that you value them.
How do you deal with difficult situations or difficult people?
The easy answer would be that you foresee difficult situations, but many times, you can’t. But I think it’s important to be fair and transparent in your dealings with people. And then, to just be firm.
There will be some difficult people who will just fail to understand. You can try up to a certain point. Beyond that, if a decision has to be taken, it should be taken. As long as you have processed it properly, you have been fair, and you have been transparent in your dealings, then don’t worry about it. Move on and don’t repent.
Difficult situations are a part of life. I’ve encountered many difficult people, and beyond a certain point, if you feel that you are unable to change their attitude, then let them go their way and go your own way.
What role does able leadership play in scientific/academic environments?
Science is a group activity, not an individual activity. So just like in any group activity, leadership is important. I am always reminded of something that Peter Drucker, a big management guru, said – “Only three things happen naturally in organizations — friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership” – and I agree with this completely. As a leader, you have to provide vision and direction. You have to give people the confidence to perform.
How and where did you pick up the leadership traits/skills that were necessary to bring you where you are now?
I haven’t had any formal leadership training. But I believe that you are really a product of your upbringing, your experiences. I’ve had the experience of some very good mentors. So, I try to emulate them. A lot of it also has to do with my parents. They were very open to me taking my own decisions in life, and I had the confidence that they would support me in anything that I do, and that was an immense help.
"I keep telling my students that all of us are born equally foolish."
I really don’t think we should over-plan our lives – “At the age of 20, I’ll do this. At 25, I’ll do this; at 30, I’ll do this…” Life doesn’t happen like that. Make the best of the moment and go in incremental steps. I keep telling my students that all of us are born equally foolish. The decisions you take in life, the vision that you have, are what take you forward.
What, according to you, is the most important principle of leadership?
Lead, follow or get out of the way. Try to lead. If you don’t have good ideas and somebody else has them, then let them lead, and you follow. And if you can’t do that, don’t stand in the way. Let somebody else do it.