Turn to stone

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Artwork by Mark Palfreyman.

Leading a group is a career-long battle against ossification.

Science is continually innovating – new techniques enable things to be examined with ever higher spatial or temporal resolution, our knowledge of fields evolves and the associated models are updated, overhauled, or overturned. Science’s waters are perpetually in a creative ferment.

For group leaders, running a team is like keeping a ship afloat in those restless choppy waters. The sails of others are around us, perhaps in convoy, sometimes in a race.

And we’re well aware that steering that ship is not the only thing we’re doing. Teaching undergraduates plays a vital role in increasing the understanding of science at a societal level. Research-associated activities such as peer review, grant evaluation, dissemination and communication create extra calls on our time. Administrative responsibilities multiply.

It all leaves fewer moments for having a hand on the tiller as the ship goes onwards. And that hand will inevitably age.

Our own expertise will gradually fade, with less time available to learn new techniques or keep abreast of every new development. The techniques that brought us success and built our reputation may be superseded, or the research of the group moves in a direction that suddenly means other approaches – potentially ones we don’t have first-hand experience of – are more relevant to the questions being pursued.

That ageing process carries an inherent and ever-present risk of a slow decline of the group’s cutting edge in technical terms. The ship begins to take on water as its timbers turn to stone. Petrify too much and eventually it will sink to the seabed, now anchored forever in time and space. Unable to go on.

To be petrified also means to be frozen in fear, as if turned to stone. Group leaders know that fear. The fear of obsolescence, the fear of falling behind, the fear of slowing down, the fear of being submerged.

Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen understood that it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. That running means being alive, adapting, evolving, and moving onwards as the waters of time flow past you. Not moving means you’re ossifying. Fossilising. Being swept behind.

It’s that ceaseless movement that makes it so important to bring new people in. It’s new personnel who can best introduce new skills and expertise to the group, new minds that bring new perspectives on old problems, and new blood that invigorates well-worn routines.

Having the humility to acknowledge our ageing is critical too. Theres a competitive streak in most of us that makes us want to be the best, but it’s simply not possible to be the best at everything when you’re supposed to be leading the group too. You need to fill the group with people who are smarter and more capable than you, because as you age it’s them that will keep the group young and vibrant.

If you try to always be the smartest person in the room, eventually you’ll be the only person left in the room. All alone. Made of stone. As the edifice sinks.

Like Orpheus, we cannot afford to look back. We can’t dwell on past loves, past successes, or past mistakes – what’s important is the moving onwards, eyes set on the horizon.

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