Amazing Leaders: Vision and the wizardry of innovation

By: Phillip Bogdanovich

Seth Neddermeyer.

When great leaders make moves that catalyze the growth or hyper-growth of their companies, people write about it. I’ve read about acquisitions, deals with cities for tax-free zoning, implementation of better processes, and more. A willingness to take great (albeit calculated) risks, and more often than not get lucky, are certainly key components to success. But they’re not the only criteria. The visionaries are the leaders who intrigue me. The weird ones. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, Ford and the automated assembly line, Tesla and the fluorescent lamp, AC power, wireless energy transmission, and on and on. Like most people I talk to—executives included—I believe (or rather, believed) that vision was a product of genius. I now believe very differently, and I’m going to explain why. Although genius has its place in industry advancement and company success, it isn’t mandatory.

One hundred fifteen. As discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and corroborated through a number of studies in the last 15 years, 115 is the magic minimum IQ for an individual to expect a reasonable potential for success in any field. In the 1940s, researchers conducted studies involving “normal” children and children of various levels of genius. The studies were interesting to me for three reasons:

  1. They indicate there is very little variation between the average social skills of children with normal IQ and children with genius IQs up to about 145.
  2. Children with IQs between 130 and 145 tended to be more empathetic. They were also capable of being more manipulative than children of average intellect.
  3. When a child’s measured IQ was over 155 or so (and certainly over 180), things started to get weird.

Why are these points interesting and also important? Because it stands to reason that: if 115 is the baseline IQ for probable success in any industry, and if IQs between 115 and 145 indicate greater potential for empathy and manipulation, and if the threshold for genius is 136 (depending on the test), and if as the studies indicate there is no notable variation in performance between 145 and 155, then: I would conclude that bright people in the range between 115 and 136 are far more likely to move an industry forward than people that are scary-smart. Aside from the box I built around this conclusion (the “ifs”), there are significantly more people with IQs between 115 and 136 than there are “geniuses” scoring 145 and higher.

I love eccentric brilliance as much as the next person; it’s memorable. No one ever starts a great story with “Man, that guy was so normal that…” John Forbes Nash heard voices, was socially awkward on a good day, and was a notoriously difficult professor. Nikola Tesla had anger issues, was reclusive, wasn’t a fan of bathing, willingly returned all of his stock in Westinghouse (about a billion dollars’ worth today), and died surrounded by huge stacks of journals. Alone. Seth Neddermeyer was an incredible mind. He was also introverted and difficult to associate with. He was good with ideas, not people. Until fairly recently, most people outside of academic circles hadn’t heard of Nikola Tesla or John Forbes Nash. Most people who don’t have a background in physics, didn’t attend Cal Tech, or aren’t huge history buffs couldn’t tell me who Seth Neddermeyer was without using Google. Yet, Nash, Neddermeyer, and Tesla are three of the most influential and brilliant minds of the last century. And none of them should be running a company.

On the other hand, take Apple’s Jony Ive. Not an off-the-charts genius, not reclusive, awkward, or repulsed by bathing. But a true visionary. I’d argue that no one in the tech industry is better at identifying desire and translating it into need. Very early in his career at Apple, Ive realized that most people have a latent desire to be connected to or surrounded by beautiful things. He established two principles very quickly:

  1. Modern industrial design doesn’t have to be unattractive and strictly utilitarian.
  2. Consumers want things they don’t even know they want, and a want can be shaped into a need.

Once Ive recognized a want and framed a need around it, he began to drive the creation of a culture. All of a sudden, Apple employees were working toward meeting one of consumers’ previously-unidentified needs: beautiful connectivity. And because Apple employees related to this need on a personal level, their work became rooted in a meaningful ideology. Apple’s leaders identified and cultivated this culture of workers taking personal pride in delivering something needed. Today, jobs at Apple are coveted even though the stress and sense of expectation are very high. Apple is the world’s most valuable brand.

If Tesla, Neddermeyer, and Nash are on one end of a spectrum and Ive is on the other, I fall somewhere in the middle—closer to the weird end. I am awkward with people. I’m blunt, and when I was younger it was worse. Lots of people think I’m rude. I have nine full Moleskine notebooks and another 3,000 pages of digital notebooks filled with ideas and inventions. Drilling techniques that prevent twist-off. Lightbulbs made out of lasers and olive oil. Friction coefficient calculations I used to determine the location of a burst pipe 20 feet deep in a friend’s yard. But I do shower. Early on with business it was hard for my peers to get past my intense exterior to see that I actually knew what I was doing. Things are better now, but my difficulty connecting with groups of people will always be a shortcoming. This is where I like to believe I differ from the Tesla’s and Neddermeyers of the world, the thing that will prevent me going full Howard Hughes. I actually like leading companies. I want to be really good at it. I am aware of the difficulty I have relating to and connecting with people, and I strive to be better and surround myself with people who are great communicators. Great connectors. Because I want to open my mind, learn, and surround myself with brilliant people who are capable of being strong where I am perhaps weakest. People who are smart enough to understand my vision and creative enough to will it into existence. Don’t be brilliant like Tesla. Don’t die alone. Be Ive. Be Henry Ford. Be brilliant and connected.

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