Crucible of Genius

How well do you deal with your brightest employees? Do you find them challenging? Consider the case of Colonel Leslie Groves of the US Department of Army Engineers who received a call from the president in 1942 appointing him to lead a group of the greatest scientific minds in America to build a new weapon. The key task however was managing genius.

Whilst the 70th anniversary of the first use of atomic weapons in warfare rightly focuses on the devastating effects on human life of such events and the dangers of unregulated use of such fearsome power, there is a back story that is immensely interesting in terms of its lessons for complex organisations.

For over three years leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki an eclectic mix of the brightest minds in the study of physics (many refugees from Nazi oppression) were concentrated in a former ranch school in remote New Mexico to tackle the greatest ever challenge of scientific discovery. Made up of different personalities, professional skills and human temperaments the task of this group was to make the first atomic bomb.

Within the core group of scientists assembled to progress the project dealing with concepts few human beings on the planet could even comprehend let alone debate and evaluate, six were already Nobel Prize winners in their own right and others had already crossed the threshold of quantum physics into the deeper and unfathomed oceans of sub-atomic science.

 

Just some of the personnel assigned to Los Alomos

Just some of the personnel assigned to Los Alomos

 

Some of these gigantic intellects were accompanied by equally expansive egos and a tendency to follow their own path rather than submit to team processes. Managing the human dynamics in this environment was no mean feat but it was the task assigned to Col. (later General) Groves, who had no scientific background but was clearly a good choice for his appreciation of human nature and his ability to select people with leadership qualities.

losalamossecretThe community of scientists and associated workers (eventually to number over 6,000) was concentrated in a facility at Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert near Santa Fe, under tight security – a highly abnormal environment for scientists who previously worked in the more open environment of universities. Keeping highly creative and individualistic thinkers on track in a tight project structure requiring intense collaboration is a challenge at the best of times let alone inside a secretive cocoon.

Nevertheless, aware of their special status as the brightest minds in the  fields  of physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering all together in one place, provided with limitless resources and the highest priority on their requests, it was inevitable that this would produce some challenges to the project managers.

It takes skill to manage genius.

Fortunately the project itself provided an extraordinary focus which the highly intelligent and energised young scientists found attractive and absorbing.

They scribbled mathematical calculations on chalkboards and cocktail napkins. They worked 10 and 12 hour days six days a week then sipped famously potent martinis at Oppenheimer’s home and played musical concerts in Fuller Lodge for relaxation.” [http://losalamoshistory.org/manhattan_project.htm]

Managing this cohort of genius however presented its own challenges and provided both the critical material for success and the potential for failure. As the project matured some harboured misgivings about what the results their work might inflict on mankind. Others wanted to push the science even further. In hindsight it would be found that two key participants were even spies smuggling secrets about the bomb out of the facility to the Russians.

Nielsbohr1923

[Niels Bohr – another brilliant mind dedicated to the projecty but always promoting humanitarian considerations in the use of the weapon]

Key issues for organisations in managing talent pools

The complexity of such a pressure cooker work environment as the Manhattan project is really no surprise and even in modern commercial organisations where the achievement of success is dependent upon (and in some cases at the mercy of) the strengths as well as the frailties of individuals, containing dynamics within a highly talented teams is demanding and requires talented leadership.

Admittedly the consequences of failure in the commercial world are not as catastrophic as running second in a nuclear war but in terms of avoiding the productivity cost arising from interpersonal tensions and conflict and the damage and delay to outcomes the principles are similar.

Many a project cost has spiralled out of control due to coordination failures prompted by internal conflict and professional jealousies.

First A-Bomb prototype

First A-Bomb prototype

What are the key issues faced by leaders like Groves in dealing with complex and important projects involving a number of highly skilled, extremely intelligent  and creative individuals?

  • Roles and responsibilities need to be clear but not so rigid as to stifle flexibility and creativity.
  • Team dynamics need to be monitored and continually focused on collaborative endeavour.
  • Resources need to be provided in a timely manner and effectiveness of logistics is essential in delivering and coordinating inputs.
  • Managing relationships within and between groups and aligning values is critical.
  • Understanding each person’s background, motivation and values is crucial.
  • Everyone must be encouraged to keep their eyes on the eventual prize and apply all effort to that end.

Leadership can be shared without abrogating authority

General-and-geniusLeadership in the Manhattan Project was not completely unitary. Whilst  Groves maintained overall senior
authority he understood that the scientists needed to be led by one of their own who would command the respect and confidence required to make the unit productive. His choice of Robert Oppenheimer was vindicated although questioned at the time.

Their relationship, although testy at times, was instrumental to the success of the project . Both men demonstrated those attributes of leadership needed to dominate critical projects.

 

Those same attributes are needed in our commercial and industry leaders today.

  • Commanding respect and trust
  • Being a role model to those they lead
  • Leading by example enduring the same pressures as those who must carry the operational load
  • Constantly focusing on the vision and communicating it to those around them
  • Inspiring extra-ordinary effort and securing discipline not by force but by demonstration of integrity

This week History Channel commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic age by screening a series entitled 1000 days of Fear: The Deadly Race at Los Alamos. An exemplary program covering the Manhattan Project,  its insight into the workings within the secret project emphasise that all extra-ordinary endeavour requiring the application of intellectual genius and collaborative effort must also be guided by extraordinary leadership.

Nevertheless, it is the simple rules that effective managers follow day by day to deliver effective teamwork at the frontline of organisations today are equally important in bringing to fruition projects like Manhattan that involve turning points in the history of mankind.

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