Barbara McClintock Ph.D. (1902 – 1992) was a Cornell University educated botanist who won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Her work was heavily research oriented and typically completed alone in the field or the lab. Known widely as a cytogeneticist, much of her work involved the genetic makeup of corn. Her Nobel Prize-winning discovery of “mobile genetic elements” was a crowning achievement. She was the consummate scientist and researcher.

Portrait of McClintock in a Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in 1947.
Image courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine,

So, what does the career of a field botanist teach us about leadership? In the case of McClintock, lessons in authenticity and trustworthiness come to mind.

“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can shut you off, no matter what they say.”

This fierce resolve is a product of her inner compass. It is an expression of her authentic self; her True North. It was this “Inner knowledge” that led to the Nobel Prize.

Developing an Inner Compass

Leaders learn from McClintock’s view that true authenticity requires deep thought and hard work. An authentic leader must first know herself well and then have the conviction to push forward, never letting go of that understanding. In my view, this self-knowledge is neither in the world nor in the brain. This knowledge resides in one’s heart.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

The challenge for leaders is to be quiet enough to hear the inner knowledge the heart offers. For me, this is a very deliberate process, beginning with quiet time that is intentionally set aside. Reflecting with what I most appreciate in my life works for me. This habit seems to create the right conditions – not for thinking, but for hearing what comes up. This exploration of heart intelligence provides the ingredients for the discovery of True North, the inner knowledge a leader needs to turn on and never allow to be turned off. Barbara McClintock surely understood her heart and held tightly to this understanding for a lifetime.

McClintock’s work has more to say about leadership. A celebrated expert, she demonstrated her expertise with humility that engendered the trust of colleagues worldwide. In an interview by another scientist following her Nobel Prize award, McClintock was asked, “How do you do great science?” Her reply…

“Really, all I can tell you about doing great science is that you somehow have to learn to lean into the kernel.”

This wonderful response is a call for all of us who want to bring the world forward to lean into our work for the expertise such effort brings, and to humbly offer our expertise in the service of others. As a trusted expert with a humble affect, McClintock is a worthy role model for leaders in any walk of life.

The McClintock Lessons

Authenticity that comes from knowing your heart; resolve generated from that understanding; expertise evolving from a commitment to the work; and the humility to dedicate yourself to the service of others is what the career of this field botanist teaches us about leadership. Know your heart. Lean forward with humility.