Since my sophomore year in college, and up until 4 months ago, I was leading or part of a research laboratory. From these experiences, I naturally find familiarity in complex questions; and given the trial and error nature of doing experiments, I’m not easily shaken when a solution doesn’t work and we have to search for another possibility. I also know the exhilarating feeling of coming across an unexpected discovery that opens up new opportunities.
I remember a time as a junior faculty member when we had a set of lab results that just didn’t make sense. We shared the results at national meetings and through our networks to see if others might provide insight. Finally, a colleague at another university suggested I send samples of our materials to them to do a special test. Packaging the materials up to ship away, I was glad to have their trusted partnership. The test revealed a surprising answer — our results didn’t make sense because our genetic strategy had uncovered an enzyme pathway, which we couldn’t have realized until our colleagues conducted a precise biochemical test. What we discovered generated a new field of research with multiple unexpected impacts on biology and medicine. It was an incredibly exciting and proud moment, and teamwork and trust were the keys.
My experiences in research seeded critical aspects of my leadership philosophy. What was most important to creating productive environments? What slowed progress or led us down a dead end? From my various roles and responsibilities both in and out of the lab, I realized that a thriving organization must have trust, transparency and teamwork.
Teamwork is essential for Wake Forest to flourish. I consider myself fortunate that I have experienced the true cohesiveness of a team in many different settings both inside and outside of the lab. Yes, the work of discovery requires teamwork. Often in the lab, we understood that where one person was weak in a given skill set, another was strong. Relying on everyone’s individual strengths and unique points of view helped create well-functioning groups. What I know from across my many experiences is that we all have something to contribute in our own ways.
I have seen this teamwork spirit so clearly in many efforts across Wake Forest’s campus. For example, teamwork has gotten us through the past almost two years of the pandemic as we have invented new operating models and supported one another. There was so much work to be done, so many opportunities and challenges to work through; it’s hard to imagine even considering going at it alone. And even if there was enough time, in any challenging situation, no single person has all the skills, experiences and perspectives to have all the answers. What we have faced in the past, are facing in the present and will face in the future continues to take each of us contributing the best of ourselves.
Another principle that I value is transparency. When you are researching and sharing your lab findings, your work is only held in high regard and perpetuated in the field if other scholars know how you reached a conclusion. The process of discovery has to be shared so that, if needed, the results can be repeated, and if challenged, the results can be proven. Other people can’t rely on your work unless there is a clear understanding of where it came from.
Transparency is especially critical as we face complex problems. In order to find a solution to an issue, we must know the facts and circumstances. At times, there will be instances when the details of situations can’t be shared with the public; however, we can share the processes for how decisions are being made and the guiding principles for our shared mission. And as we can, we should share data to the fullest extent possible. We can also approach one another with openness and an intentionality toward sharing, engaging in open dialogue and respectful communication. And we can rely on a third attribute of my leadership philosophy.
This third principle — and perhaps the most important — is trust. When working with a team, you have to put trust in your teammates. When sharing your results and expertise in a transparent way, you and your work build trust and create opportunities for strengthening teams. Trust creates an environment in which we feel comfortable being transparent; it is the glue that will hold our efforts together.
Yet, trust takes time and is also fragile. It takes being in the trenches together and walking through experiences with one another. It takes trials, where our character is on display and our integrity is tested, to build trust. It takes recognizing team members for their efforts; for example, the tremendous efforts of each community member are contributing to a campus environment that is safe and healthy. I appreciate this is hard work, and know the herculean effort required has left many fatigued. Times like these require further trust, transparency and teamwork. We all hope, and indeed see evidence, that we are turning the corner on this phase of the pandemic with cases down (especially on campus), vaccinations for children on the horizon and our commitment to each other remaining strong. I am hopeful that these improvements will enable us to expand opportunities to be together and build on our shared experiences. We will continue working to build trust by seeking out the thoughts, concerns and ideas of the Wake Forest community.
Optimism is also a core component underlying these three Ts. I have often joked that if I wasn’t an optimist I would have talked myself out of doing any experiment; one can always think of ways the experiment could fail before even trying it. If we share the belief that working together will result in positive progress, we will also nurture trust, act on our promise and grow stronger.
Our need for teamwork, transparency and trust extends beyond any single initiative or any single point in time. As we are writing this next chapter for Wake Forest, I am optimistic about the potential and promise that I see here. Together, we will navigate all that lies ahead and seize opportunities to trust, communicate and work as a team.