The New Leadership in Pharma: An Interview with Rick Lynch, Former U.S. Army General

Mirror mirror on the wall, am I a good leader after all?

How many times do pharma executives ask themselves that question? The challenges posed by changing technologies, aging world population, the “patent cliff” threat and so on, raise the bar on what it means to be a good leader in the new pharma industry era.

The role of the Pharma leadership has perhaps never been this crucial in leading the industry into the next era.

rick lynch - pharma leadershipOne of the most important publications of late, and a true guide into the difficulties and challenges of brave and impactful leadership, is the book “Adapt or Die: Leadership Principles from an American General” by Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch. Lynch has served for 35 years in the U.S. army, commanding at all levels, including all of U.S. army installations, as well as leading the 2007 surge in Iraq.

After all those years in service, and more than 30 months in Iraq alone, Lynch’s served as executive director of the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute. which allowed him to contribute his experience in leading crucial operations and massive troops through difficult realities, and offer a different take on the changing dynamics in the Pharma industry. Lynch now focuses his efforts on his own company R Lynch Enterprises, LLC, which promotes leader development via speeches, articles, consulting, book sales, etc.

Battlefield Leadership in Pharma

We turned to Lynch, to get his perspective on what a good leadership means in Pharma, especially in times of change and challenges. What we found in the interview, was a fascinating fresh approach to management, leadership, and how the difference between them can change the future of this industry.

So here’s what he had to say:

What was your motivation in writing this book?

“After 35 years in the army and an additional 4 years in West Point, I realized that people had to be prepared to respond to changing circumstances, and that’s the essence of adaptive leadership, really. I’m concerned about the direction the leadership is taking in this country, in all levels of leadership, so what I wanted to do is try to contribute the experience I’ve acquired from my years in the army and my post-army activity, and share my knowledge of leadership characteristics, to try to produce more effective leaders. The goal is to improve leaders of all levels.”

How, in your opinion, did your military experience contribute to your vision and current approach to leadership?

“I learned over time that it’s all about engaged leadership. I am convinced that what we have to do across the nation is to get leaders to be focused on the needs of those people that they’re entrusted to lead. After 35 years in the army, I’ve had lots of opportunities to serve, and what I found is that when you focus on those people who are entrusted in your care, when the time came, they would work harder for you. So, that’s the essence of what I try to talk about.”

What are some of the most difficult leadership decisions you had to make and what were your key take-aways from them?

“Well, as you would imagine, one of the things I had the privilege of doing is command a division in combat in Iraq as part of the Surge, and the most difficult leadership decision I ever made throughout my career was placing youngsters in harm’s way. This idea of deciding where people would be deployed or what equipment they had to work with, or what formation they would be using, is one of the most difficult decisions I had to make. I mean, we were doing what our nation needed us to do; I made a lot of decisions throughout my service, but not all of them had the impact of youngsters dying or living as a result of them.”

When you were at the US Army War College, you talked about a world that is VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). How does that apply to Pharma and what is required of its organizations to succeed?

“Well it’s an interesting question. Things in the world today are changing every day, and these changes affect everybody, from individuals to large pharma companies. The circumstances are constantly changing, and so, what people have to realize is that what you have today in terms of situation and conditions, may or may not be that way tomorrow, and you have to be ready to respond. Now, that includes the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, they’re making decisions today based on current assumptions that could be different tomorrow. So, to be prepared for that is the key.”

According to a recent PWC Pharma 2020 report, the Pharma industry faces 3 fundamental challenges – one of them being cultural sclerosis. What would be your recommendations to the Pharma leadership to treat such an illness?[1]

“Again it’s all about adaptive leadership; what’s critical in good management, is being able to respond to change. With pharmaceutical leaders, I find, in some cases, there’s a certain way of thinking where if this is the way it’s always been, this is the way it’s always going to be. This kind of management thinking, that’s supposedly resistant to change, is risky; you know, there’s a term- ‘webeez’. It’s used to describe those folks who always think ‘we be here when you got here, and we be here when you leave’. So, you have to create an environment where people realize they have got to be prepared for changes.”

What is the one leadership tip out of the “9 ways to lead” that you would pick as most powerful for Pharma executives?

“That’s an easy answer – the most important one is engaged leadership. It is the most important tip for pharmaceutical executives. In some places in the pharma industry, I find that things are so busy and constantly changing that often the management forgets the people, the individuals. The individual needs to feel that his role matters, that he is of value in the organization. I am actually convinced that what makes the difference between a manager and a leader is being somebody who truly cares about these people entrusted in his care. A manager doesn’t really care about the people, the manager just really cares about output and getting things done. A leader cares about his people. Now, an engaged leadership creates this environment where the people know their boss really cares, so, when things change and when things get difficult, those people are going to work harder because they don’t want to let their boss down because they know their boss really cares. My wife taught me that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and that’s really the essence of what you’re trying to do in engaged leadership. I wrote in my book that I believe leaders should love those people entrusted to their care like they love their own children.”

A Fresh way of Looking at Pharma Leadership

So, to conclude this inspiring interview-

Lynch provides today’s pharma executives with a fresh philosophy of leadership, and offers a new path for the industry’s leaders to walk through; a path of attentive, engaged and adaptive leadership, essentially focused on looking inwards, strengthening relations within the organization from top to bottom. And, as he mentioned in a recent article, “…leaders must look down, not up. Your employees will take care of you if you take care of them. Focus on their needs, on their welfare. They will surprise you with what they can get accomplished.”[2]


[1] (pwc, 2012)

[2] (Lynch, 2015)