Leading “Mad Scientists”

James Cameron is a “mad scientist”—and the director of the two highest grossing movies ever made—Titanic and Avatar.  Apple Computer founder and CEO Steve Jobs is probably a “mad scientist.”  So were Ludwig Beethoven, Henry Ford and Amelia Earhart.  Who could deny their gigantic contributions or their incredible gifts?

We use the label “mad scientists,” not as a reference to some evil maladjusted type like Dr. Strangelove or Frankenstein, but rather as the catch-all phrase for the gifted eccentric and unconventional wild ducks that occasionally enter organizations.  Some are nerdy, some are whiz kids without manners, and some are amazing talents marching to their own drum.  For most organizations they bring a mixed blessing.

All “mad scientists” have common noble traits—brilliant, visionary, perfectionists and passionately driven.  They are also very challenging to work with, extremely bull-headed, egotistical, countercultural, irreverent and sometimes borderline crazy.  Organizations cannot tolerate very many “mad scientists.”  They disturb the sanctity of stability and status quo.  Highly conservative organizations view them as extreme misfits.

“Mad scientists” ask tough questions that make mediocre performers feel inadequate.  “Mad scientists” ignore tidy rules of corporate civility in a headlong pursuit of their bold visions.  They poke around in areas outside their sandbox and beyond their pay grades.  While most “mad scientists” would get an easy A+ in creativity, their impatience with diplomacy would net them a grade of F in “emotional intelligence.”

Some organizations try to expel all “mad scientists.”  Unless these eccentrics are protected by being in the top slot—like film director, CEO, or owner--they get labeled, ignored and ostracized.  Their performance reviews give short shrift to their vast achievements while spotlighting only their “does not play well with others” dimensions.  They are told to get a coach or read a book or go talk with HR.  Failing to be valued for their contribution, most exit for greener pastures.  Consider the massive loss to the organizations they vacate.

Every organization interested in growth needs a few “mad scientists.”  They can make us better and more vigorous.  Sure, they are complex, challenging, and downright difficult.  But, they can propel us to greatness by being the sparkplug for the organization’s innovation engine.  Of course they can make us wring our hands and shake our head.  They can also insure our advancement and competitiveness.  They are very rare and we need them.

Being a “mad scientist” can be quite lonely.  However, being the leader of a “mad scientist” can be downright nerve racking.  As the boss, you are perpetually surprised by events that signal your “mad scientist” has “done it again!”  Other employees are constantly in your office complaining about their quirky actions, rude business etiquette, and insensitive cross examinations.  You often wonder if the practical return is worth the emotional cost.  However, there are ways to lead your “mad scientist” in a fashion that maximizes their value without losing them to a competitor or having to resort to an pricy “personality transplant.”

Embrace Their Weirdness

Avoid trying to explain to someone why “mad scientists” are the way they are.  You cannot reprogram eccentricity or turn off a compelling vision.  Searching for a rational explanation for their idiosyncrasies carries the implication that if they can be understood they can be “cured.”  The goal is not to change them but to effectively lead them in a fashion that harnesses their creative energies.  “Mad scientists” see the world through a completely unique set of lens and their perspective looks very right to them.  Accept their special treasures and steer their talents.  Comments like, “George is a bit of a character, but my, what a talent!” can send a different message to others than, “George is just not like the other ‘children.’”

Provide Loose Control and Tight Guidance

Since “Mad scientists” live in the big picture world it is key they be given an accurate view at the macro level but not be micro managed.  They can be successfully led but are poorly managed.  External controls trigger their aversion to restrictions and constraints.  They do not deal well with mindless policies, narrow job descriptions, and obsessive hierarchical controls that seek to convert them from “wild ducks” to barnyard chickens.  They work nontraditional hours, guided more by the rhythm of their work than the hands of the clock.  However, they need hard and fast boundaries regarding where an overstep risks the mission.  “Mad scientists” without governors can be a clear and present danger to the effectiveness of the organization.

Run Interference for Them

“Mad scientists” need sponsors.  They need champions with gladiator-like traits to take on naysayers and the sometimes frustrated mob.   They need someone who always has available a “get out of jail free” card--a defender who can explain their contribution in a fashion that makes defending their foibles completely unnecessary.  They need a scout shrewd enough in corporate politics to provide them early warning regarding interpersonal mine fields and lurking group ambushes.  Without a front team, “mad scientists” can too often be marginalized and ultimately rendered impotent.

Resource Them

“Mad scientists” need special resources.  They need more latitude and a higher tolerance for their error than others.  They may present a dozen approaches, eleven of which are wacky, but the twelfth could be borderline genius.  Discarding the first eleven before reviewing all their ideas risks robbing the organization of breakthroughs.  They should be given the latest tools and access to the best minds.  They need a network of like-minded “scientists” who can function as a sounding board for their most outrageous ideas.  One of Henry Ford’s best friends was another “mad scientist”—Thomas Edison.  They need an easy entrée to information and access to a cadre of people who can help them refine their “perfect” idea into an “effective” application.

Celebrate Them

“Mad scientists,” while often the owners of larger than normal egos, need little public affirmation.  They do want credit.  Seeing a lesser being get the “Nobel prize” they rightfully earned draws sharp disapproval.  But, applause and attaboys others may cherish are not what drive them--the intrinsic give-back of their work is more than enough.  However, celebration can help others learn to value their contribution.  Celebration enables fellow employees to separate the person from the performance.  It can foster their resilience and facilitate other’s patience.  And, if their presence becomes completely intolerable and no skunk works-like outlet is available, celebrate them by helping them migrate to organizations where their talents will be better used.

One of the late Waylon Jennings best-known hit songs was entitled, “I’ve always been crazy and it’s helped me from going insane.”  It could be the mantra of the “mad scientist.”  “Crazy” is the moniker for mavericks, eccentrics, rebels, and nonconformists.  These characters can be catalysts for true greatness.  Effectively led, they can make huge contributions.  However, like wild ducks and wild horses, they should never be domesticated.  As the leader of a “mad scientist” it may help to remember the paraphrased words of Harvard history professor Laural Thatcher Ulrich: “Well behaved people seldom make history.”

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (www.johnrpatterson.com).  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.