Students of Leadership

January 10, 2016 · 0 comments

Jonathan Martin of the University of Wisconsin, recipient of the 2015 AMS Edward N. Lorenz Teaching Excellence Award, spoke to the attendees of the Student Conference this weekend. Here’s a condensed version of his remarks:

It’s a great pleasure to meet with you all. I’ve decided to say a few words about leadership because that’s what you all are preparing yourselves to do as you get educated.

I want you to take a second and look around where you’re sitting. You’re looking at the next generation of leaders in our field, in our country, and in our world. You all have a couple of days and maybe a week to get to know those new leaders, and I encourage you to take advantage of that circumstance while you are here.

But also, in the background, make sure you take some time to consider what it is that you are getting yourselves into. Because you will be the ones society turns to for solutions to its problems and for encouragement and optimism in difficult times.

Though effective leadership arises from the interaction of many personal habits and characteristics of thought and action, I’ll suggest just five of these based on my own experience:

  1. You have to master the fundamentals of our science as best as you can and always strive to consider those notions from new perspectives. If you master them, it puts you in a position to react effectively to new situations, new challenges. You have to adopt an intellectually athletic position: relaxed but alert, focused but free of anxiety, ready to spring, ready to execute based on your mastery of the fundamentals.
  2. Now, because you may be called upon to address issues of broadening concern, you also must understand the difference between assertion and reasoned argument. Opinions elevated to the level of assertions too often pass themselves off as reasoned argument. Adopt positions for yourself that are defensible, that appeal to the facts, and that are arguable.
  3. To contribute to complicated discussions and help formulate solutions, you must understand the distinction between simple and easy. Most of the fundamental ideas at the heart of our science are simple in their concepts, but none of them are easy. This applies to a lot of things you will encounter both inside and out of the sciences.
  4. Invest yourself in the work you find interesting. I’m going to follow my curiosity wherever it leads. I hope in your career you can do the same. Make sure that when the opportunity arises, you do that.
  5. And finally, you can’t be a part of the solution to any problem if no one understands what you’re talking about. Here are some master storytellers from very different eras and very different background periods: Homer, Mark Twain, Alex Haley. They express their ideas clearly, eloquently, and precisely, and connect to universals.  You should imitate these masters. And another: Arndt Eliassen. If you want to read the best-written scientific paper I’ve ever read—and I had the great opportunity to tell him that in person—it’s his 1962 paper, “On the Vertical Circulation in Frontal Zones.” Read that and you’ll agree, this is really good storytelling. So you’re going to have to have excellent storytelling skills. Learning to communicate effectively is absolutely essential for leadership. When you go back to your campuses, tell all your young colleagues and remind yourself, “Do not neglect your humanities classes.” You’ve got to learn how to use those.

Leadership almost always involves teamwork. So you have to be able create a climate of teamwork in which although the threat of failure is recognized, the fear of failure does not exist. This permits the group to adopt the enabling perspective that you win as a team and you lose as a team. I consider the establishment of this perspective as the most critical element of team leadership because it commits every member of the team to commit fully to the success of the project without the concern that the failure of the project will be pinned on them. Such an environment encourages appropriate risk-taking, unconventional but reasonable thinking, and dedicated follow-through—indispensable ingredients for success.

The teams you lead in your career will be in part composed of the people in this room.  So commit yourselves to excellence and treat each other well. That means acknowledge the contributions of others, and disagree respectfully when you have to by offering arguments and not personal attacks.

The 21st Century will be one of important transformation for our society. Successful response to the many challenges we face will depend on a cadre of flexible, powerful, inventive, and resilient minds. And you possess those minds. It’s up to you to marry them to dedicational urgency to help us solve our problems.