Dreamers aren’t intimidated

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Last week I was with a group of brilliant engineers and computer scientists from a cross section of large corporations. The subject was leadership in engineering and computer science, based on my concept of Innovation-Based Leadership ™.

It was a super-smart group, but something was amiss. At the start of our session, there was silence and skepticism. As the participants warmed up and developed the trust to share stories, I began to see a common problem. When these extremely bright computer scientists and engineers had been hired out of top schools around the world, they were hired because they were brilliant, free-thinking rebels. Yet over the years they had evolved into drones. Why?

It turned out that when they were brought into their respective companies they were placed in groups that had very specific, narrowly defined deliverables. Their job was to get that one task done. When they attempted to share their vision and out-of-the-box thinking, their group leads—people who were mostly concerned with hitting milestones to receive their bonuses—shut them down time after time. After endless meetings and butting heads with peers for hours each day, their entire job came down to delivering a piece of code. Vision and passion were exhausted. Over the years, these geniuses became like their superiors. Then they became group leads…and the cycle continued.

Turns out that in many corporate environments, attempts to promote critical thinking or propose radical ideas meet with intimidation. This is the typical path I see:

  1. Appeals to the direct manager are usually dismissed. Managers see their job security as threatened if this person’s idea gets traction. To protect their jobs, they bury innovative ideas.
  2. Appeals to higher-ups often wind up getting back to the direct manager, who accuses workers of “going over his head.” Sanctions or disciplinary action can result. Workers are suddenly not “team players,” which is code for not being a mindless conformist.

It’s too much pressure.  Even great minds succumb.  It’s easier to take the path of least resistance and become one of the Borg.

In afternoon session, I saw light bulbs going on over people’s heads. They recognized what I was saying. I told them, “You are brilliant, capable thinkers. You are innovators. Yes, you have a responsibility to the company that hired you. So do a great job, and part of that is making the impossible happen. Intimidation is for cowards. Confront it politely and dismiss it.”

Only cowards intimidate, because they don’t have the courage to make their dreams into reality. I remind my audiences that they are entrepreneurs. They have a responsibility to disrupt, then innovate.

By the end of the day, we had made great progress. What happened the next day, back at work? Well, I’m an optimist.  First one spark in one company.  Then ten.  Then thousands.

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