This is the first in a series of pieces I am writing on research leadership. The first in the series is a couple of articles devoted to conflicts of interest. I also want to explore ideas of organisational strategy, gender, who can lead, and with my interest in the global south, on funding, collaboration, and global leadership.
When I started to think about writing this series, I remembered one of the best books I had ever read on leadership, Be in Charge: A Leadership Manual. It was written by Alexander Margulis. During his career, Margulis was Professor of Radiology at Cornell, Chair of Radiology at UCSF, and an accomplished scientist. His book is, unusually in the leadership literature, relevant to the research environment. I read it early in my career, the year it was first published, at a time when I was trying to overcome management issues with a large multi-country study I was conducting. It helped to crystallise in my mind basic ideas of successful leadership.
When the book was first published, its language and tone were already a little dated (and while he struggled against it, sexist). Re-reading it, it reminds me of the comfy slippers worn by the sage, bachelor uncle in a 1960s, US family, TV drama. I recommend that you push past all that; read it for its common-sense advice, and ignore it for its anachronisms. One of the things he reflects on, not in great detail, is the issue of conflicts of interest associated with family and friends in the workplace. To start off, I have extracted three short ideas:
Close friendships are a handicap except with clearly non-competing equals.
Do not have favorites.
Do not ever employ members of your family in your unit … If for some reason one of your family members has to be employed in your unit, you should not have any supervisory or controlling responsibilities for his or her performance.
For my entire career in Global Health, I have collaborated with my wife, and the question of conflicts of interest would occasionally raise its head. Global health has, in fact, had some great husband and wife teams. One of the most successful, and frankly, one of the most important for health globally was that of Ruth Bonita and Robert Beaglehole. There was never a hint of a conflict of interest, and the benefits of that collaboration were enormous.
The salvation for my wife and I was that we were never each other’s boss. We were either working in different institutions or, when we were at the same institution, we occupied parallel positions. We could work together, but we could not offer favours to each other. Monash University was so concerned about the potential for conflicts of interest that they stopped us co-supervising PhD students — something I thought was a particularly stupid interpretation of a conflict of interest that ignored where the real benefit of our collaboration lay for students. Nonetheless, we complied, and that perceived conflict went away without even a hushed whisper.
When my wife moved to take over the Director position of a United Nations policy institute, we briefly discussed whether we could continue the collaboration and whether I could seek a position in the same institute. In our heads, we could see how to navigate it, but the reality of the conflict of interest was too strong and the rules unequivocal — No! It is easy to see why the answer is, no: “Do not have favourites”. Couples can be more or less emotionally mature but, unless there is indifference between them, it is probably quite tricky not to favour the person you love over others. Even if that can be managed, it is probably difficult for the no-longer-favoured to understand why. At the very least, you each know your partner’s needs, desires, and handicaps more deeply than you do others. In that greater understanding, opportunities are created for perfectly rational moments in which help can be offered. The help that is not offered to others because you do not understand them as well. That loss of opportunity for others is simply unfair, and the kind of thing that gnaws away at organisational harmony.
For the Head of a Research Organisation, to have a family member working within the organisation will always be a challenge. If the family member is very junior, it may appear, at first, to make little difference. A helping hand from above would be so overt and so distasteful that it likely would not occur. However, the supervisor of the family member may believe that doing small (or large) favours for Junior will play well with the boss: a favourable appraisal, an opportunity to attend a conference, a room with a view. Even if the Head and the Supervisor are both completely honest, the perception of a conflict of interest, however unjustified, may arise. And perceived conflicts of interest can undermine the trust and confidence in the organisation.
If the family member is not junior, but quite senior, the risks of a conflict of interest are even more pronounced. Senior Scientists need to negotiate with their supervisor or their supervisor’s supervisor (who may well be the Head of the Research Organisation) for resources to support their team. A new piece of equipment is needed, extra space, or a new hire. None of these is an issue except, as is always the case, when others are competing for the same resources. Only the other team wants the resources for a new vehicle, $50,000 of cloud computing, or a staff retreat.
Margulis has a blanket rule. Don’t do it. The reality may be more difficult. If my wife and I progressed in the same organisation and she applied for a senior position, should I resign? Should she be precluded from consideration for higher office? Should there be a process based on the Russian aphorism, Trust but Verify (Доверя́й, но проверя́й). Set up some oversight role that can monitor conflicts of interest arising between the Head of the Research Organisation and their lover. It doesn’t merely sound distasteful, it can’t work because any process operating from within the organisation can be subverted by the boss. The inherent power of the Head of the Research Organisation provides ample opportunities to offer favours and promotion to the Guards — and there is no one to Guard the Guards. Again, even if the Head is completely honest, perception creates the potential for conflict of interest.
Margulis focused on potential conflicts of interest where a more organisationally senior family member offered (or was perceived to offer) favours or advantage to a more junior family member. In organisational leadership, however, there is also a potential for lateral conflicts of interest to arise, from family members occupying ostensibly parallel but influential positions.
In a commercial organisation, family members holding parallel posts may not be an issue and may, in fact, be a significant “value add” for the organisation. If you are a member of the Murdoch family then having family members on the Board, others holding senior positions elsewhere in the company, others working in an entwined parallel organisation, need not be a conflict of interest. The whole family is focused on maximising the value of their holdings, and therefore (probably) supporting the maximisation of the value for all the shareholders. That at least would be the argument I would make, and if the majority of shareholders buy the argument, it is a non-issue. In a private, family-owned company, it is even less of an issue.
This is not so in your typical not-for-profit research organisation or university. A family member who is a Chair of Geology and another who is a Chair of English Literature are unlikely to create conflicts of interest within the organisation. They are not simply in parallel units, they are in parallel universes of academic and research engagement, and they are highly unlikely to have an opportunity to interact with each other in a compromising professional manner. This would not be the case, however, if one family member was, say, the Director of Purchasing and the other was the Director of Finance. Here, there would be ample opportunity for fraud. It would be equally challenging to avoid a conflict of interest if one family member were on the University Council, another was a senior executive in the university, and a third was the steward of the university’s union, representing academic staff. They might argue that, as with the Murdochs, this level of intertwining is an advantage for the organisation because it creates efficiencies and synergies. Nonetheless, it would create an unequivocal perception of a conflict of interest that the university’s Vice-Chancellor or President would inevitably have to confront.
There is an interesting twist to this notion of parallel units. A married couple were simultaneously Vice-Chancellors (Presidents) of two of Australia’s top universities. Each appointment was a testament to the extraordinary qualities of the individuals. In combination, it could also have created a perception of a potential conflict of interest. The Australian newspaper described them as wielding “vast influence as the vice-chancellors of two of Australia’s largest, most highly ranked and esteemed universities”.
Two notorious, rival institutions, constantly competing with each other over a larger slice of a diminishing pot of funding — and also sometimes successfully collaborating — were led by a married couple. The universities could have their internal strategies, strengths or weaknesses exposed by their leaders (the two people who were supposed to have their respective institutions’ best interests at heart) over a shared cup of coffee, a walk in the park, or a more active and intentional trade. For four years the couple simultaneously held these two university CEO positions (with a combined salary in 2018 of AUD$2.7 Million), and to my knowledge, there was never a hint of a realised conflict of interest. It must, nonetheless, stand out as a bizarre exception to the rule. It is impossible to imagine that close a familial relationship would be countenanced between the CEOs of Alphabet and Amazon or Microsoft and Apple.
It may be that a Research Organisation would permit (potentially) conflicted relationships to arise in its leaders — and not simply allow them but countenance and endorse them. This action would require clear acknowledgement, clear justification, and clear guidelines for ensuring that it neither damaged the internal nor external working relationships of the organisation. The costs and benefits of permitting such a conflict would need to be carefully weighed and balanced. If it arose inadvertently it could have even greater reputational damage because it would bring the quality of governance into question.