As this article show (http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/24/opinion/micro-manager-trust-murnighan/index.html?iid=article_sidebar), really you are the ultimate leader. You assemble an awesome team and give them what they want, without having to do it all yourself.I'm not sure what prompted the e-mail, and I'm not sure why the student who wrote this e-mail was reading Route to the top coverage on CNN, but it was still very nice to receive. I do know that this student doesn't like it when I point out that other folks in the lab are the ones who do the real work and that I just sit around, kibbitz a little, and occasionally offer some statistical advice.
And on that point, I have more to say.
This student won't admit it, but she1 and my other students all could have done everything they did without me. Sure, some of the statistics wouldn't have been as fancy, but none of the fancy statistics really led to fundamentally different insights than they could have obtained using more standard methods. The main thing my fancy statistics contributed was a way to overcome the objections of reviewers who often get too hung up on picky statistical details. Simple analyses would have shown very similar patterns. They just would have violated a lot of assumptions, and there would have been battles with reviewers to convince them that statistics were just fine.2
To the extent I've been a good advisor it really comes down to this: I've been smart enough to stay out of the way of the folks I've worked with. I've trusted them to make good choices. I've been available to help them think through the options they face. If I can take credit for anything, it's for staying out of their way and for providing them a place where they could pick up the skills they need - mostly from other people.
The “ultimate leader” phrase is way over the top – for one thing I was her advisor, not her boss. But I am very pleased by the sentiment expressed. It's nice to know that at least one person appreciates the trust I put in her and her fellow graduate students.
1By revealing that the letter writer was a woman, I run no risk of revealing her identity. If you take a look at my CV, you'll see that only two of my former students are men.
2As a result of having fancy statistics in their papers, we faced other battles – with reviewers who didn't understand the strange things I was doing.