Monday, October 09, 2006

Cultivating the "Nobel" Leader

‘Tis the season for Nobel prize winners, that special class of thinkers who share important commonalities with great leaders: intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and a strong tendency to challenge conventional wisdom. Their collective virtue is a model for the world, including leading and managing any organization or nation. It is unfortunately in short supply, not because of genetic deficits. Blame the habits of the mind---a learning deficit.

The biggest barrier to the “Nobel” approach to leading and managing, by far, is the tendency to believe “facts” that conform to our views, even in the face of conflicting information or outright contradiction. We see this played out in the newspapers every day with many political leaders—at our peril. Insufficiently swift action or lack of attention to urgent issues such as global warming, infrastructure development and maintenance, poverty, the safety of our food supply and the sources of violence and terrorism dominate the airwaves today. Through neglect, squabbling and short term thinking they are becoming bigger not smaller problems. The issues would likely not have grown to their level of the magnitude and seriousness if the “Nobel mind” prevailed. As analytic rigor is a redeeming feature of those who win Nobels, how can we get more of it in the leadership domain for the good of all?

This year, when the Nobels were awarded, I noticed something I had not before. They run in families. From my undergraduate science days when I was fortunate to be taught by a number of outstanding professors, including Canada’s own Nobel winner in chemistry, John Polyani, I remember the Curies the most. Marie and her husband Pierre shared the physics prize in 1903. After Pierre’s untimely death, Marie went on to win again eight years later for chemistry. In 1935, the family garnered a third Nobel and a second in chemistry, by daughter Irene Joliet-Curie and her husband Frederick Joliet. All Nobels related to the study of the behaviour and synthesis of radioactive elements which are now the back bone of many medical procedures. This year, Roger Kornberg won the chemistry Nobel forty seven years after his still living Dad did in medicine. As with the Curies, their research fields overlap, this time in gene research. In the history of Nobels, there are six pairs of fathers and sons, four married couples and two brothers who have won Nobels since they started in 1901. If we add collaborative partnerships, the numbers greatly multiply.

The dynamics of the environment, therefore, have played a role in nurturing the habits of great thinking. Certainly, the American dominance for Nobel prizes this year suggests this too. To borrow from the language of software programmers, is this “scaleable” in organizations? Why not? The habits---questioning one’s own assumptions, testing pre-conceived notions in the field, replicating findings as well as generating novel ideas---are not difficult. Any leader-manager can become a more powerful “Nobel” thinker simply by deciding to be one. One role modeler leads to another. The culture shifts. The organization gets much smarter!

1 comment:

Erika said...

Hi Linda, I totally agree with your comments that great thinking can be modeled. An organization's culture is determined by habits and thinking of the leaders, which is filtered "down" to staff. I recently read a book entitled "The Customer Always Comes Second" written by Hal Rosenbluth, whose unconventional thinking changed and significatly improved his business. His philosophy of putting staff first, then radiated out to automatically enhance customer service because staff were motivated and genuinely cared. Some of his methods seemed radical, but you cannot dispute the end result.