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Saving “Mad Scientists”

by Guest Writter
Chip R. Bell

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

The label “mad scientist” is not the moniker for some evil maladjusted type like Dr. Strangelove, Dr. No, or Frankenstein, but rather a catchall phrase for the gifted, 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 mixed blessings.  Can you imagine being Lady Gaga’s supervisor or Johnny Depp’s boss?

All “mad scientists” have common noble traits—brilliant, visionary, perfectionists and passionately driven. They are also very challenging to work with, mercurial, extremely bull-headed, egotistical, irreverent, and once in a while, borderline crazy. They don’t rebel against policies; they just disregard them.  Organizations cannot tolerate many “mad scientists;” they disturb the sanctity of stability and order.

“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.” They try most leaders’ patience and embarrass their team members who are seeking to make a good impression.

Some organizations in time expel most “mad scientists.”  Unless protected by being in the top slot—film director, CEO, or owner–they can get labeled, ignored and ostracized as a “bad hire.”Instead of having a champion running interference, “mad scientists” are too often marginalized.  Rather than accommodating their “weirdness” while acclaiming their triumphs, they are commanded to “play nice.”  Their performance reviews almost exclusively spotlight their “does not play well with others” dimension.  They are told to get a coach or read a book.  Failing to be valued for their contribution, most exit for larger pastures, not just greener ones. Consider the loss to the organizations they vacate.

Every progressive 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 the organization to greatness.  Of course they can make us wring our hands and shake our head.  They can also ensure our advancement and competitiveness. Remember:  how you treat these eccentrics can telegraph to the rest of the organization how much you really value the untraditional thinking needed for innovation.


About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and author of several national best-selling books including The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service and Take Their Breath Away.  He can be reached at www.chipbell.com.

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