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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Great Leaders Are Made, Not Born


Recently, I watched a riveting documentary on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer on Public Television's American Experience. The program covered the span of Oppenheimer's life but focused in particular on what the film-maker termed the Security Clearance Trial in 1954. Oppenheimer's reputation and sense of self-worth were destroyed by the verdict of that trial (really more a hearing than a true trial). But the program made clear that the verdict had been decided in advance by Oppenheimer's enemies. In particular, Lewis Strauss, a powerful industrialist and head of the Atomic Energy Commission who wanted to silence Oppenheimer for taking positions that Strauss opposed. Strauss believed in power, the power over men and the power over nations. He wanted a nuclear arsenal so vast that the Soviets would never dare use their own nuclear weapons. As a result of the resulting arms race, the U.S. went from possessing a few hundred atomic weapons in the 1950's to over 70,000 thermo-nuclear weapons at the peak of the arms race in the 1980's. Oppenheimer was arguing for limitations on these weapons which clearly had the power to destroy humanity.

While Oppenheimer was the victim of the vendetta to destroy his reputation, the film makes it clear that he was at best a difficult person to live with. Brilliant and introverted, he used his intellect to brow-beat his students and other physicists who didn't measure up to his standards. Both before World War II and after the war, he was arrogant and aloof, a person who was never comfortable with himself and covered up that lack of self-esteem through his arrogance.

But during World War II, Oppenheimer, who had never managed anything, not even an academic department, was given the job of leading the scientific team of the Manhattan Project. He absolutely excelled in this herculean management task. How was that possible? How could someone who could barely get along with people, who was disliked and who distanced himself from others change almost completely into a team player, a cheerleader, a man who could add good suggestions to solving almost any problem, a man who even the academic prima donnas (excepting Edward Teller) could work for?

The film doesn't answer that question but it gives some hints at the answer. Oppenheimer knew that the Manhattan Project and his role in it were going to change the course of history. His idealism called forth his best qualities to lead a team to produce an atomic bomb before the Germans did so. He was the intellectual equal of the brilliant people whom he managed - and they knew it.

Some time ago, I read an interesting book by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman entitled Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Bennis and Biederman identified what they called Great Groups, teams of people that came together and accomplished extraordinary things. The original Apple Computer team was one example. So was the Skunkworks at Lockheed Aircraft. Another of their examples was the Manhattan Project. Here are the distilled take-home lessons from the book:

1. Greatness starts with superb people.
2. Great Groups and great leaders create each other.
3. Every Great Group has a strong leader.
4. The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it.
5. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together.
6. Great Groups think they are on a mission of such importance it is almost a mission from God.
7. Every Great Group is an island – but an island with a bridge to the mainland.
8. Great Groups see themselves as winning underdogs. They believe they are up against either a real or imagined establishment.
9. Great Groups always have an enemy. The enemy may be imaginary but it builds a sense of cohesion within the group.
10. People in Great Groups have blinders on.
11. Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic.
12. In Great Groups the right person has the right job.
13. The leaders of Great Groups give them what they need and free them from the rest.
14. Great Groups accomplish what they set out to do.


Perhaps the biggest lesson that Bennis and Biederman outlined was that great work is its own reward. The authors also highlight the fact that by their very nature Great Groups are time limited. When the job is done, the group has no choice but to fragment and the people move on.

What does this have to do with the film on Oppenheimer? I think it reinforces some of the messages from the book. Oppenheimer was a superb intellect. His own capacity as a great leader was created even as he himself created the Project.

The real leader of the Manhatten Project was General Leslie Groves. He especially embodied principle number 13: he gave Oppenheimer and his team what they needed and got everything else out of the way for them.

Maybe the bottom line on this for me is that you can never really be certain what someone is capable of doing. The circumstances, the other members of the team, the mission of the group all interact to produce sometimes surprising and, more rarely, astounding results. I take some comfort from this. Maybe in the right circumstances, the rest of us can also rise to greatness.

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