Leadership Lessons from Marie Curie

Earlier this month I read a biography about Marie Curie that was written by her daughter. It was a great book about one of the most impactful women that ever lived. Marie is known as a world-famous scientist, but she was also an amazing leader. As I read the book I jotted down seven leadership lessons from Marie Curie:

leadership lessons from marie curie

Leadership Lessons in Science

  • Take ownership of your own learning – Marie learned early in her life that if she wanted to know something she would have to figure it out for herself. Not only did she teach herself science before she was able to go to university, but she also learned radiology, taught herself to drive, and learned basic auto mechanics to help save soldiers’ lives during WWI.
  • Exploit opportunities – When WWI broke out, X-ray technology was in its infancy and X-ray machines were owned only by universities and medical facilities. They were also unwieldy and immobile. Marie recognized the need for X-ray technology on the battle fronts but was dismissed as a woman who didn’t understand war. Undeterred, Marie gutted a car and retrofitted an X-ray machine to make it portable. Military surgeons were initially skeptical, but quickly came around when they realized with amazement that they could operate at the exact location identified by the X-ray and find the broken bone, bullet, or shrapnel they were looking for. Marie absconded X-ray machines from universities to set up radiological rooms at military hospitals and continued retrofitting automobiles as mobile machines. Her efforts served more than a million soldiers by the war’s end.
  • Define work/life balance for yourself – Marie was one of the earliest examples of a woman trying to be a wife, raise children, and have a career. It was never easy, and that hasn’t changed. What Marie did well was to clearly identify the work/life balance and priorities that worked for her, and then lived that way without guilt. She loved being a wife and mother and was committed to her family, but her greatest passion was her work. While she occasionally bemoaned her domestic shortcomings, she never second-guessed herself and she never apologized for living her life her way.
  • Glass ceilings were made to be broken – Throughout her incredible career, Marie was often hindered by the same sexist headwinds encountered by women in the workplace today. Though it was frustrating, she chose to focus on maximizing her contributions instead of wallowing in the unfairness of it all. Her patience and perseverance paid off, and she eventually went on to become the first woman to hold a professorship at the Sorbonne and the only woman to this day to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes.
  • Patience is a virtue – Marie was a child prodigy and breezed through primary school. Despite being ready and eager to go straight to university, her family was poor and didn’t have the means to send more than one child at a time. Marie selflessly decided to put her education on hold and work as a governess (a job she hated) for three years while her older sister got her degree at the Sorbonne. Patience continued to serve Marie well throughout her career. She waited years for lab space, titles, funding, and recognition. But she bore it patiently, trusting that her hard work would yield her desired results.
  • Resourcefulness gets results – When Marie and her husband were first granted an abandoned, decrepit shed at the university to use as their lab, they were given no additional resources. At this point in time, Marie was still working to isolate pure radium, but the ore needed for her experiments was prohibitively costly. With no budget from the university and no money of her own, Marie would have been justified in feeling helpless and giving up. Instead of allowing herself to be victimized, she got creative. She couldn’t afford the raw ore, but she figured that mining companies might sell her their waste for a reasonable price. After all, radium would be present no matter the ore’s state. She called the closest mining company, who couldn’t believe their luck. They were having trouble finding places to dispose of their waste, so they happily offered Marie as much as she wanted as long as she paid for transportation. Over time, Marie shipped herself more than 8 tons at her own expense, ultimately enabling her to be successful in her attempts to isolate radium.
  • Money is not the motive – Marie Curie changed science and the world forever when she discovered radium and how to isolate it. For a time, pure radium was one of the world’s rarest and most expensive elements. When the commercial possibilities of radium became evident, an American manufacturer reached out to the Curie’s asking how to make it. Marie and her husband recognized that this was their opportunity to patent their process and make a fortune. They immediately discarded that option and freely gave their process to whoever requested it. In their minds, science belonged to the people. They always struggled financially and certainly could have used the money, but success to them was not synonymous with material wealth.

While Marie would never have considered herself a businessperson or a leader, there is no doubt that she possessed the leadership skills that enabled her to change the world forever. She proved that no matter your profession, commitment to leadership principles will make all the difference in achieving your goals.

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