Leadership Lessons from Robert Oppenheimer

In 1941 J. Robert Oppenheimer started work on the Manhattan Project. Less than a year later he was running a secret weapons program with the sole purpose of developing nuclear weapons. In August 1945 his team did the impossible, they conquered the atom and the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki found themselves elevated from footnotes to the front page of history.

Freeman Dyson’s illuminating profile of Oppenheimer not only unmasks the mystique of one of America’s greatest scientific tragedies (Oppenheimer was stripped of his Security Clearance due to the Red Scare) but outlines the leadership mistakes that led to his unfortunate demise. “He always wanted to be at the center” wrote Dyson, “He paid too much attention to famous people working on fashionable topics.” In Dyson’s opinion Oppenheimer had the potential to become the next Einstein or Bohr, but instead known as the destroyer of worlds. ”For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems,” wrote Dyson, but co-authored just one seminal paper (and never talked about the importance of the discovery while alive).

This is ironic given that Oppenheimer talked a lot about science for science sake.

Today when we talk about innovation we often talk about the promise of computer software. Have trouble reading- buy this app! Have trouble sleeping- buy this sleep measurement device! Can’t loose weight- buy a calorie counter! The answer to everything is just $9.99. In reality, the real answer is work. Hard work.  For all his genius Oppenheimer can be viewed as an underachiever. ”He could never sit still long enough,” said his former protegee, “to do a difficult calculation.”

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