Johan Luthman is Executive Vice President and Head of Research & Development at Lundbeck, a global pharmaceutical company specialising in brain diseases. With more than 30 years of experience in pharmaceutical R&D, Johan has been an essential part of leadership teams in pharma companies such as Eisai, Merck & Co, Serono and AstraZeneca. He has initiated & managed projects for small molecules and biopharmaceuticals, neuroscience, metabolic diseases, and immunology & inflammation.

We interviewed Johan as part of our Inspiring Leaders series, and he kindly shared some of his valuable leadership insights from the importance of being grounded as a leader to the power of having a clear solidary of purpose.


Lessons in leadership

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many great leaders who have been a source of inspiration and knowledge. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to always remain grounded. Treating everyone on your team with respect regardless of hierarchies is the best way to start. Once you recognise that everyone has a unique value they can bring to your mission, you can work on drawing out the best from every individual to build a strong team.

Communication is key – if the team is aware of why certain changes and processes are happening, they will be more likely to be inspired to work towards the company’s goals. This requires an agile approach: if you ignore the proposals given to you by your team, they’ll simply leave demotivated. A rule that we have adopted in Lundbeck is to love everyone’s ideas for at least five minutes before critiquing them.


Leading during times of change

Being able to adjust your leadership style according to the situation and dynamic of the team or organisation you are leading, as well as the commercial and operational challenges and goals, is a crucial skill. The situational nature of leadership is one of the most interesting things about being a leader.

When I first came to Lundbeck, the nature of the situation required a strong hand to drive change. Once the transition was complete, we were ready to build what is now a strong and collaborative team. Of course, changing leadership style so drastically doesn’t happen overnight. People take note of how leaders behave, so being transparent and communicating openly with your team is paramount during times of change.


A simple guide to caring leadership

Everyone needs to feel seen, respected and appreciated in the workplace. This requires an understanding of the person’s own set of values and how these can fit with the needs of the organisation. Employees with different levels of motivation and competence at different stages of career development will require different management.

For example, imagine that a child desperately wants a bike, but they do not know how to cycle. Their level of motivation is high, but their competence is zero. They need a lot of micro-management, including detailed instructions for every step of the process. This is like an employee who is excited to take on a new role but has very little experience.

Later, the child’s needs may change. After a few attempts at cycling, they may fall off and scratch their knees and become disheartened. At this point, they need encouragement and reassurance. This is like an employee in a new role who has started to encounter some barriers and obstacles. Their competence and experience have increased, but their motivation may be waning.

Once the child has grown up and become a professional cyclist, they no longer need encouragement, and they don’t need micro-management. At this stage, they just need someone to check in with them from time to time and to offer them some advice when it is needed. It is about understanding someone’s experience, knowledge and motivation and providing the right guidance for them at the right time.


Progress is achieved through solidarity of purpose

I feel privileged to be leading in an organisation with solidarity of purpose. At Lundbeck, we work in areas that require specialist knowledge where we can make the most impact; not for us, but for the people who suffer from the problems we are trying to fix. It’s about the patients – this is where much of our determination comes from. While we aren’t a large company, we strive to make progress and drive the field forwards.

We are currently making efforts to focus on niche and rare indications in neurology and psychiatry after reaching 70 years of neuroscience R&D. For better or worse, our brains are who we are, and we are working hard to find new ways to help our fellow man. All of this will come down to how we choose to innovate our organisation, and how we continue to move forward as a cohesive unit.


Don’t underestimate the power of fun

Once all the hard work is done to lay the foundations of a good team or organisation, we should all remember that life is supposed to be fun – I say this at work all the time! We all have enough things to be serious about, especially when you’re dealing with large amounts of money and serious medical conditions daily. Enjoying your work helps you to stay motivated and will ultimately help you perform better.

When I am holding meetings with my team, I try to create an enjoyable atmosphere by assigning people roles such as ‘the timekeeper,’ who makes sure that the meeting stays on schedule and that nobody talks for too long, or ‘the rabbit hole master,’ who keeps the conversation focused on the facts and sensible suggestions.


Allow diversity to flourish

I want my team to feel confident about speaking up – it is not a disaster if you say something that doesn’t work out. Your slip-ups do not define you or the other great work you can do. When an idea or project is progressing but needs more work, you’ll get better results if you balance encouragement with positive candour, ensuring the end goal remains the target. Diverse perspectives and different ways of thinking are crucial to finding new ways to help patients and to discovering new treatments, so it’s crucial that we allow diversity to flourish if we want to make progress.


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