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Federal Coach: Mapping the NIH’s Leadership DNA

Dr. Francis S. Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), overseeing an institution that is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. A physician-geneticist, Collins is noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book. He served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the NIH from 1993 through 2008. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

What leadership lessons did you learn as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute?

One of the things I learned is that I am best as a leader if I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am. One of my favorite quotes is from Woodrow Wilson: “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” Then I have to be totally willing to listen to those wise heads, soaking up all of their expertise, but also encouraging them to tell me bad news. I value people most who are willing to come to me and say, “You know, you’re about to make a big mistake.”

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