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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Leadership from the Front or Back of the Room?

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

I am in Japan again. The sun rises early through fog and then sets early in a sea of chalky pastels. And what I am thinking about on this visit is global leadership. And not because of the Euro debt crisis or the silly antics of American politics or even the struggles of Canadian government as it tries to keep believing in a bright future amidst all this.

I’m thinking about how the nature of effective global leadership is starting to change. In the traditional view, a leader is a person up front, giving directions, listening to feedback from the team, and providing an overall sense of direction while representing the team to the outside world. Sometimes the leader will walk among the ranks and comment from the back of the room about how it’s going. But it is really only in the past few decades that we’ve seen “leadership from the back of the room” start to take off. What is it? Its where the leader puts himself or herself at the service of the group. Where the leader is mostly just listening and then identifying when consensus or agreement appears to be present. A leader “from the back of the room” would ask questions and make requests of others to present ideas or propose pathways for action.

In an article a few years ago, some economists called this “collaborative advantage.” They noted, “Strong possibilities that the nation can benefit by developing ‘mutual gain’ policies. Doing so requires a fundamental change in global strategy. The United States should move away from an almost certainly futile attempt to maintain dominance and toward an approach in which leadership comes from developing and brokering mutual gains among equal partners,” (L. Lynn and H. Salzman, “Collaborative Advantage,” Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2006, p. 76). They say this collaborative advantage,  “…comes not from self-sufficiency or maintaining a monopoly but from being a valued collaborator at various levels in the international system.”

What does this have to do with my global travel this week? Well, I think Japan is in the process of taking on a leadership at the “back of the room” for the entire world. Traditionally, Japan has been a leader out in front by being extremely focused and very dedicated. In science and technology, Japan leads and invites others to follow after it has a leadership position. But in a modern world where everyone is competing and everyone needs a partner, it is the countries who can get other countries to work together that will ultimately succeed the most.

I’m here for the KEK/TRIUMF Scientific Symposium, an annual event where the two labs on either side of the Pacific Ocean review opportunities for collaboration on accelerator-based science. This time, though, there is a difference in the air. Both laboratories are looking for opportunities that are concrete and truly joint: where together they can offer a combined research or development capability that they wouldn’t be able to do individually. For instance, both TRIUMF and KEK provide beams of muons that are used for characterizing the magnetic properties and behavior of novel nanomaterials. In the next round of upgrades, both labs will assist each other with implementation and commissioning. But rather than collaborating to ensure that each has a complete and working system, the labs could partner so that they have complementary capabilities—and then send some of their users to the OTHER lab when those special capabilities are needed. This may sound obvious and it may sound trivial, but it is a profound shift. It’s like having the Chevy dealer tell you that for your needs, you really need a Ford and he/she will give you a ride over to the Ford dealership for free.

And so, globalization and the flat earth takes another step forward. Japan is looking for partners in science, Canada is looking to develop “collaborative advantages,” and Greece struggles to choose a premier. We will have peace on this planet sometime soon!

On a personal note, I have to say that this has been one of my more difficult trips to the Big Island of Japan. I am on a short-term eating plan (aka diet) to trim some weight and more importantly, interrupt my habit of eating everything in front of me. So for each very elegant and hand-crafted meal I sit down to at Japan, I am picking and choosing what I can actually taste and eat to minimize carbs and sugars. *sigh* I must come back again to fully savour this beautiful and noble country!

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