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The Dilemma of Brilliant Jerks

The departure of Biden’s incandescent, problematic science advisor.
February 11, 2022
The Dilemma of Brilliant Jerks
WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - JANUARY 16: Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) nominee and presidential science adviser designate Eric Lander speaks during an announcement January 16, 2021 at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware. President-elect Joe Biden has announced key members of his incoming White House science team. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Biden presidential campaign promised voters a renewed emphasis on science; the Biden administration backed up this pledge by elevating the president’s science advisor and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to a cabinet-level role and installing  in the position Eric Lander, a distinguished biologist and geneticist. Within the scientific community, there was much rejoicing.

This week, however, the awe was replaced by shock—as well as sadness, disappointment, and a fair amount of schadenfreude, as Lander, one of science’s most celebrated stars, resigned following allegations of abusive behavior toward subordinates, particularly women.

Rachel Wallace, who had served as general counsel at OSTP under Lander, filed a complaint against him and others in the agency. She described Lander’s behavior as “egregious,” noting that “numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.”

The subsequent investigation, according to Politico, found evidence of “bullying” behavior by Lander, as well as “credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander.”

In his resignation letter, Lander wrote, “I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them.” He added,

I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to reach our shared goals—including at times challenging and criticizing. But it is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women.

Tying the episode up with a bow, Matthew Herper in Stat described Lander’s meteoric rise and epic fall as the end of science’s “big ego” era. The future, he suggested, won’t be characterized by the “armwrestling, argumentative tone of the genome age,” and will be populated by a new breed of leaders who are “less rude,” who recognize that “the consequences of behaving badly at work have become so large.”

It’s an appealing conclusion—and one that predictably proved popular on social media.

But is it true?

We don’t have to look far to find leaders with distasteful traits—“brilliant jerks” they’ve been called—who have transformed their businesses: Elon Musk comes to mind. Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber. Anna Wintour of Vogue, the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada. Many other examples, both contemporary and historical, suggest themselves.

Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Graduate School of Business, has spent his career chronicling how leaders attain and extend their hold on power. Often this requires deploying a slew of qualities that collectively are almost the antithesis of what leaders tend to preach after they become powerful themselves, and the opposite, Pfeffer argues, of what most leadership books and courses try to coach.

In practice, power is often obtained through behavior that tends to be narcissistic, disingenuous, manipulative. Pfeffer cites Robert Caro’s rich biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, transformative leaders who rose to power through the ruthless exercise of deplorable behavior.

Nevertheless, we continue to hope for unfailingly kind and authentic transformative leaders, a hope urged on by aspirational literature that continues to insist we can have it all. In his book Masters of Scale, famed Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reid Hoffman assures readers that through careful attention to business culture it’s possible to achieve the ultra-rapid company growth that founders and their investors seek without the ethical compromises that seem to crop up constantly, in such examples as Uber and Facebook. This earnest belief “that, through careful attention to leadership and culture, the propulsive drive to grow can be disentangled from the toxic behavior so often associated with explosive expansion,” as I wrote in a review of Hoffman’s book, “feels like the triumph of hope over experience.”

Sharing these concerns, New York Times technology writer Shira Ovide observed last year that it may be “impossible to separate the reckless carnival barker who deludes himself and others from the bold ideas that really are helping to change the world for the better.” Ovide added:

I hate thinking this. I want to believe that technologies can succeed without aiming to reprogram all of humanity and without the associated temptations to engage in fraud or abuse. I want the good Musk without the bad. I want the wonderful and empowering elements of social media without the genocide. But I just don’t know if we can separate the wonderful from the awful.

And this, ultimately, is what we’re left contemplating after the Lander resignation. It’s not that we can’t envision talented scientific leaders who are able to manage a large enterprise in a generally inoffensive and unobjectionable fashion. Indeed, many prominent scientists, including some of Lander’s predecessors in the role of presidential science advisor, fit that description.

But leaders like Lander—and Musk and Robert Moses—are far more than just managers. They are dynamos, each with a distinct drive, a powerful vision, and relentless determination that can motivate action and drive unimaginable change. They are forces of nature.

I’ve had the opportunity to see the Lander up close; I was in the audience, a first-year biology graduate student working in a cancer research lab at the Whitehead Institute, when Lander first presented his vision for what would become the Broad Institute, to the larger community. I was one of many teaching assistants for his introductory biology course, required of MIT undergraduates. I saw the Broad Institute grow and grow and grow. I’ve seen its outsized influence—and the associated professional resentment felt with particular intensity by those outside its orbit. But most of all, I was impressed, as so many are, by Lander himself—a mathematician who found his way to biology and redefined contemporary science with his vision, charisma, energy, and determination. I’ve never encountered anyone else quite like him in my career in medicine and science.

In my own interactions with Lander, I never saw an example of his behavior that seemed sexist. A former M.D./Ph.D. classmate of mine, Deborah Hung, and a former VC colleague, Karen Hong, who both trained with Lander, recently raised money for “an annual award in Lander’s name that honors a postdoctoral fellow for outstanding research and a commitment to promoting women in science,” according to the Boston Globe.  The Globe story also notes that several of Lander’s former colleagues at the Broad describe him as a tough and demanding boss, but not sexist. Others, sadly, have had a very different experience.

In theory, of course, it should be possible to drive similar transformative change without behaving badly. Perhaps, as some suggest, we need to replace our current, arguably alpha male archetype with a broader vision that recognizes there are other, perhaps even more effective ways of achieving change than ramming it through with the force of your personality. Such approaches might, for example, do more to encourage voices that have traditionally been underrepresented—unquestionably a change for the better.

Complicating such efforts: the impact of mounting pressure from both the left and right to purge challenging perspectives from our personal environments, raising the question of whether at this point it’s possible for any leader to drive uncomfortable change without someone taking offense?

Like Ovide, I also wonder if the sort of epochal, transformative leadership I associate with figures like Elon Musk, Robert Moses, and yes, Eric Lander, requires the unreasonable conviction and distasteful self-belief of a high-profile, high-powered individual champion.

We are left with a difficult, pragmatic question: Is it possible to selectively curtail the worst qualities of visionary leaders, while retaining all that is good?

Perhaps, with the appropriate refinements, we can create the space for a new category of equally effective—and ideally, even more effective—transformative leader to emerge; this is the dream and what I’d wish for myself, my colleagues, my family.

But it’s also possible that, in our eagerness to minimize offense, we will instead condemn ourselves to anodyne leaders incapable of profoundly challenging the status quo. Worse still, such organizational stasis might even pave the way for a disruptive, malignant narcissist eager to step into the breach.

By both his own admission and the statements of others, it seems clear that Lander crossed the line of acceptable behavior. As I listen to Rachel Wallace, I shudder to imagine how I would have felt if I were on the receiving end. Or my wife (who, as a biotech CEO, endures more than her share of boorish men). Or my daughters.

But we need to consider carefully where to draw the line, because, inevitably, there are tradeoffs.

If we continue to reduce our threshold for offense, we may eliminate both the difficult conversations profound change often requires and the impassioned but imperfect visionaries who so often drive these discussions.

David Shaywitz

David Shaywitz is a physician-scientist at a biopharmaceutical company, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.