Leading People Too Smart to Be Led

16 February, 2017 / Articles
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An evolutionary geneticist, a professional gambler, and a business school professor walk into a bar. What might appear to be the start of a horribly nerdy joke is simply a scene that could happen any evening at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And it did recently when I visited SFI’s president, evolutionary geneticist David Krakauer.

Have you ever wanted to blow up the bureaucracy at your organization? That’s what SFI’s founders did. Founded in 1984 by scientists, including four Nobel laureates, SFI is one of the world’s leading research institutions, but it’s unlike any university. Born partly out of frustration with traditional university bureaucracies, SFI has no departments, no formal hierarchies, and no tenure.

SFI has become an international nexus, where over 250 top scientists from all over the world engage across disciplines. Some visit for a few days, while others spend years in residence. They all covet SFI’s culture of exploration, curiosity, and rigor. The Institute’s community has generated foundational work in fields from economics to computer science to genetics to the exploration of artificial life.

Shepherding this transdisciplinary work is Krakauer’s job. He embodies the cognitive diversity of SFI, having made seminal contributions to fields as disparate as genetics, microbiology, human history, and society. In 2012 Wired magazine included Krakauer on its list of 50 people who will change the world. (You can see a video of our conversation here.)

I wanted to know how Krakauer leads a wildly creative, highly effective organization. There were six things he told me that I think could be transferrable to leaders in any organization:

See yourself as “a colonel with an army of generals.” Humility is an essential prerequisite for a leader who’s in the middle of a maelstrom of talent. “Lead by example and set a tone,” encouraged Krakauer. “Great talent must be inspired to be part of your organization.” Amplifying Krakauer’s maxim, the way to get the best contributions from world-leading talent is to inspire them to be part of your organization — rather than making the hard sell or overmanaging them.

Don’t valorize failure. “Everyone says failure is a wonderful thing. I totally disagree,” Krakauer says. It might make a provocative slogan, but few brilliant people are really motivated by the prospect of failing. He laments the current fad of celebrating failure, a prescription I often hear in my role of working with executives eager to enhance corporate innovation capabilities. Instead of celebrating failure, we need to reframe the challenge. “Here we celebrate success. We also celebrate experiments,” Krakauer explains.

Encourage smart recklessness. Each of us has a crazy idea from time to time. We should probably share them more often than we do. People sometimes overprepare to avoid embarrassment, and most institutions are designed to eschew such concepts. But in these embryonic ideas might lie greatness. Krakauer advises leaders to create opportunities where people are expected to share these “reckless” ideas. With this expectation, many more novel ideas are likely to emerge. But setting up these kinds of conditions is different from valorizing failure. Quoting Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate physicist, Krakauer says, “Wrong ideas can be interesting, but correct ideas are great.”

The organization should be a crucible, not a crib. Encouraging rigorous, constructive debate is indispensable to navigating challenges of high uncertainty, from extending the bounds of knowledge to scaling a business. Argument is “how we come to understand things,” observes Krakauer, a tough and contentious critic who sees SFI’s role as a crucible, a place where ideas are put to the test. “I believe in freedom and I believe in community. I also believe in rigor and…challenging nonsense.” Many companies, however, develop cultural and procedural barriers to productive debate, valuing organizational harmony over innovation. The challenge is to find the balance: to foster an environment where people feel comfortable sharing — and arguing — the merits of different perspectives.

Search for “stupid” practices as much as you seek best practices. “We have hundreds of organizations researching intelligence. Why don’t we have at least a few researching stupidity?” asks Krakauer. “After all, stupidity is at the heart of why and how things go wrong.” Anyone operating in a large enterprise feels the truth of Krakauer’s quip. Overcoming collective stupidity on an ongoing basis is a role for leadership in any organization. Structure can help, and SFI’s flat, organic arrangement certainly does, but structure isn’t enough. Leaders who do well in large organizations get the right things done — sometimes by leveraging the bureaucracy, and sometimes in spite of it.

Persist. Near the end of our conversation, I asked Krakauer about his experiences as a scientist studying complexity theory. It’s a relatively young field, and early on in his career Krakauer had had serious reservations about how far it could advance. But he persisted even though he was faced with major doubts. He told me he kept going because of “curiosity, a desire to understand the universe…pushing the boundaries of what you can understand on a fundamental level. That overwhelmed the very real prospect of making little progress.” That’s good advice for leaders, too. On days when nothing is going right, and even Management 101 seems to be failing, focus on persistence. If the vision and purpose are sound, you may just get further than you thought you could.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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