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ATD Blog

How to Lead a “Mad Scientist”


Tue Dec 18 2012


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

The label “mad scientists,” is not a reference to some evil maladjusted type like Dr. Strangelove, Dr. No, 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 just marching to their own drum.  For most organizations they bring mixed blessings.


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, irreverent and sometimes borderline crazy.  Organizations cannot tolerate very many “mad scientists.”  They disturb the sanctity of stability.

“Mad scientists” ask tough questions that can make mediocre performers feel inadequate.  “Mad scientists” ignore tidy rules of corporate civility in 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 A+ in creativity, their impatience with diplomacy nets them an F in “emotional intelligence.” 

Some organizations try to expel all “mad scientists.”  Unless these misfits are protected by being in the top slot—like film director, CEO, or owner--they get labeled, ignored and ostracized.  Instead of having someone run interference, “mad scientists” are too often marginalized.  Rather than accommodating their “weirdness” while acclaiming their enormous triumphs, they are asked to “play nice.”  Their performance reviews give short shrift to their vast achievements while spotlighting only their “does not play well with others” dimension.  They are told to get a coach or read a book or see a counselor.  Failing to be valued for their contribution, most exit for larger pastures, not just greener ones.  Consider the loss to the organizations they vacate. 

But, there is a much graver cost to the organization.

Employees watch how leaders treat “mad scientists.”  And, what they observe communicates a great deal about how leaders feel about learning.  Not the kind of learning that is the acquisition of neatly well-honed practices shoe-horned into a person’s skill base for practical application.  But, the type of learning that creates insight, creativity and leads to pioneering breakthroughs.  The type of paradigm-shifting education that can frequently come from the best trainers in the best HRD functions.  The very act of learning is fundamentally about change. Effective learning means breaking old habits and abandoning tired and true methods for ones that can propel a person to new heights. 


Innovation has become the new battle cry across the fields of marketplace competition.  “Change or Die” has been replaced with “Innovate or Die.” Folk singer Bob Dylan sang, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” This shift to innovation has come through the realization that faster, better and cheaper are not sufficient for sustained growth.  Organizational winners must show prowess in unique, novel and ingenious, all tightly in sync with a solid bet that “if we build it, they will come.”  Even as overall workforces are being “leaned,” R&D staffing is on the increase.  At the core of an innovation-driven culture is the elevation of such values as curiosity, risk-taking and experimentation—all central tenants of learning.

So, before you ask human resources to find a new home for your “mad scientist,” think again.  Making your quirky, smart, eccentric employee you label “a real character” available to the industry might make your work life as a leader a lot less hassled.  But, it might be putting a subtle governor on your employees’ willingness to stretch, develop, broaden...and grow.

Every thriving organization needs a few “mad scientists.” They can make us better and more vigorous.  Sure, they are complex, challenging, and downright difficult.  But, they can springboard us to greatness.  Of course they can make us wring our hands and shake our head.  They can also insure our improvement, advancement and competitiveness.  Show your employees you care about learning by celebrating “mad scientists.”  They are very rare and we need them.

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