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Leadership Lessons from Oppenheimer

Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Whenever Director Christopher Nolan announces a new project, the world awaits expectantly for his latest creation to become available to the public. After the mixed results of Tenet (2020), Nolan turned his attention to a period epic based on the book American Prometheus: The Tragedy and Triumph of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Those who know a bit about the story of the crucial and enigmatic historical figure immediately met the announcement with excitement, eager to see how the auteur would treat the subject of his first biopic.

The synopsis of the new film goes: During World War II, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. appoints physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer and a team of scientists spend years developing and designing the atomic bomb. Their work comes to fruition on July 16, 1945, as they witness the world's first nuclear explosion, forever changing the course of history.

On one level, this film is about the inner workings of a person destined to change the course of human history, but it is also very much about owning the consequences of our actions as leaders. As Oppenheimer himself once said,

...Secrecy strikes at the very root of what science is, and what it is for. It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that it is good to learn. It is not good to be a scientist, and it is not possible, unless you think that it is of the highest value to share your knowledge, to share it with anyone who is interested. It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the spread of knowledge, and are willing to take the consequences.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present 5 key leadership lessons from this incredible movie.

  1. Follow your passions: During his early years as a physics student in The UK and later in Germany, Oppenheimer is haunted by visions of particle explosions and their energetic releases. With a singular talent for cutting through the noise to identify the core of many concepts as well as a Nikola Teslaian capacity for learning and mastering various disciplines; he made the leaps from Einstein's theory of relativity to build the practical theories of atomic release. His passions also led him to support controversial causes at the time but did not hinder his overall effectiveness at stewarding the Manhattan Project. Leadership Lesson: The most successful leaders are those who arrive at the position by way of a near vocational desire to serve and support the advancement of the field of leadership and management. When you hear that call to explore creating positive impacts on the lives of others, it is important to heed it.

  2. Weigh the implications of inaction: When Oppenheimer is approached by General Leslie Groves regarding the Manhattan project - Oppenheimer correctly surmises that the Nazis are 18 months ahead in their development of an atomic weapon. He understands instantly the implication of sitting on the sidelines and although he has some misgivings, decides on a partnership with the US Government that will change the world. Leadership Lesson: One thing effective leaders do well is contemplate the risk of doing nothing in the face of inevitable change. The most skillful leaders can then use these consequences to create the burning platform that gets others moving forward.

  3. Build a high-performance team: Due to his esteem in the field, Oppenheimer assembles a dream team of theoretical and practical physicists with the requisite temperament, talent, and discipline to do what no one had ever done. He effectively managed challenging egos and agendas during the storming phase to coalesce the group around a challenging yet achievable plan. He then provided direction, autonomy, support, motivation, and metrics to keep the team on track towards their goals. Leadership Lesson: In today's hybrid working world, leaders with the ability to get a group of people aligned on a goal bigger than themselves and then shepherd them toward achievement is one of the most crucial skills to possess. These leaders understand that they will confront Tuckman's stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing and systematically conquer each stage until the job is done.

  4. Transform theory into reality: Over and over in the film the characters discuss the limitations of theory on predicting what will happen in reality. Oppenheimer understands this is an area of weakness for him and ensures he has enough practical talent on hand to truly convert all the formulas and careful calculations into a tangible atomic weapon with predictable limits. Even so, the trinity test where the first bomb is exploded in Los Alamos is a horrifying revelation of how palpable things can get when they leap from the imagination into the real world. Leadership Lesson: Innovation doesn't just happen overnight. The best leaders leverage the process of empirical creativity to test and scale their best ideas. Empirical meaning - proven before overinvesting in a particular direction. This is a far more effective approach than using one's gut and instincts to make certain leaps. Often what we experience as some sort of power to invent the future is merely a result of careful study of current trends and the ability to embrace paradoxes to make things happen.

  5. Accept the consequences of success. Another ongoing concern for the minds behind atomic warfare was the possibility that the energy ignited by the trinity test might create a chain reaction that set Earth's atmosphere ablaze and thus ending humanity. Theoretically, this risk was calculated at near zero, but in later years, Oppenheimer reflected that they had incorrectly estimated the risk of the end of humanity due to nuclear war. It would be a danger as long as even one nuclear warhead remained armed in the world. Leadership Lesson: Most leaders are adept at course correcting when plans fail, but what about when plans succeed better than was imagined? Are you ready to accept the surge of responsibility that comes with sudden success? This is something that needs to be added to the calculus when initiating plans.

Overall, Oppenheimer is a heady drama about a person and event that has ramifications to this day. Christopher Nolan has once again proven to be a master of cinema and has redeemed himself after the confusion of Tenet. (4.5 out of 5 stars from me).

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