Career and Jobs

Three Leadership Secrets From Nobel Prize Winners

If your leadership goals include innovation, distinctiveness, and achieving groundbreaking outcomes, there are few better examples than Nobel laureates. These are thinkers that endured untold obstacles to differentiate themselves from some of the smartest people on the planet. And the techniques they employ to rise to the top hold lessons that every leader should learn.

Lesson #1: Don’t Let Tunnel Vision Blind You

Sir Andre Geim, Regius Professor and Royal Society Research Professor at The University of Manchester, won the Nobel Prize for discovering graphene, the one-atom-thick wonder material derived from graphite (and a whole class of similar materials).

Many career-focused achievers believe that a laser focus on one issue or career path determines success. Put your nose to the grindstone, they think; focus without distraction, and you’ll get to the top. But Dr. Geim’s career is a glaring exception to that approach.

Much of his success stems from lateral thinking. He told me, “Because of my rather diverse background and being in different scientific environments, I like to jump from subject to subject. When you do such jumps, you don’t get stuck on one track of thinking. And you’re able to use the knowledge from other areas; it starts to come naturally. And this background knowledge sometimes makes the whole difference.”

Far too many leaders don’t allow their employees to think laterally. A Leadership IQ study, for example, found that only 20% of managers always encourage their employees to innovate, experiment and play with new ideas. Of course, leaders have specific goals that have to be achieved, and those goals do require focus. But giving your employees a bit of autonomy to explore new ideas could not only spark a major breakthrough, but it could also be the key to employee retention and engagement.

Relatedly, the leadership style that employees most want to work for is called the Idealist style, and it’s characterized by extensive learning and growth. Idealists are high-energy achievers who believe in the positive potential of everyone around them; they want to learn and grow, and they want everyone else on the team to do the same.

Lesson #2: Pursue The Road Less Travelled

Dr. Shuji Nakamura won the Nobel Prize “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”

In the 1980s, there were two materials considered as possible candidates for creating blue LEDs; zinc selenide and gallium nitride. As Dr. Nakamura told me, “Basically, all scientists worked with zinc selenide…When people learned I worked with gallium nitride, they told me I was crazy and a foolish scientist.”

But Dr. Nakamura did not accept the conventional wisdom that zinc selenide was the only way to create blue LEDs. In part, his choice was opportunistic. “I saw that the zinc selenide field was publishing lots of papers,” he told me. “But in the gallium nitride field, only very few papers had been published, so I was confident that I could publish lots of papers.”

He saw an opportunity to boost his career (and the success of his employer) by deviating from conventional wisdom. It’s tough to distinguish oneself (or a company) by following the herd, especially when you’re not near the front of the pack.

In the online test What Motivates You?, we discovered that nearly a quarter of people are driven by Security; they generally dislike change and prefer continuity, consistency and predictability. By contrast, a paltry 8% of people are motivated by Adventure; they’re motivated by risk, change, and uncertainty, and jump at the opportunity to be the first to do something new. However, while those numbers reflect the general population of workers, senior executives are more than twice as likely to be motivated by Adventure. You can be a successful manager by following the established path, but to be a great leader (or win a Nobel Prize), it often takes pursuing the road less traveled.

Lesson #3: Pressure Test Your Ideas (Before Others Do)

Dr. Michael Houghton, a virologist in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta, won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the hepatitis C (HCV) virus.

Before Dr. Houghton published the papers in the journal Science that ultimately led to his Nobel Prize, he formed a review committee. “We formed a review committee the year before we published,” he told me. With a half-dozen members, Dr. Houghton’s team sought and received skepticism before going public. “When we formed the expert review committee…I was surprised that all of them weren’t convinced that we had discovered the virus.”

It takes courage to seek out people who aren’t convinced of your brilliance; most of us would much rather hear positive than constructive feedback. In fact, in a study on leadership development, Leadership IQ discovered that only 27% of employees say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement.

But leadership isn’t about feeling comfortable; it’s about getting to the best possible solution, even if that involves hearing tough criticism. The study Why CEOs Get Fired revealed that one of the top five reasons chief executives lost their job was their inability to receive bad news about their products or company. Great leaders recognize that it’s far better to hear bad news directly than to move forward with a poorly thought-out or incorrect plan.

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