Thomas Edison liked to watch job candidates eat soup. If they seasoned it before tasting it then they were likely to assume too much and would not be working for Edison. Sir Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, advocated “directed panspermia,” which asserts life on Earth was seeded by extra-terrestrials. Werner Heisenberg, the originator of the uncertainty principle in physics, barely passed his doctoral exam because he had little or no understanding of experimental physics and really didn’t care that he didn’t understand.
Geniuses sometimes act and, thankfully, think different. Aristotle believed “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness” and we take for granted a thin line between genius and, well, insanity. And because of their extraordinary talents, the world forgives, and is often charmed by, the eccentricities and peculiarities of incredibly smart people. Yet this “mad genius” view of exceptionally brilliant people can get distorted and lead down a path of destruction, self and otherwise. This risk is nowhere near more real and obvious than when a startup falls prey to the illusion of indispensability.
Professor of Psychology Dean Keith Simonton, an acknowledged expert on the relationship between madness and genius, concluded in his article, “Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question,” that this long taken-for-granted notion has no support, none. Nevertheless, the smartish, geeky world of tech entrepreneurship covets the crazy entrepreneur myth, with the tech media, cofounders, investors, academics, consultants and board members feeding it.
Embracing the weird is a necessary aspect of the creative process and, yes, one also needs a dash of just plain nuts to commit everything to something with the statistical odds of success of Black Jack. Yet, weirdness is not an end in itself, but more like the sweat of an Olympic athlete; a residual outcome of the courageous thinking and noble effort that comes with doing the new, different and impossible. Regrettably, an emerging cult of entrepreneurship is now in play where “being different” has become a necessary and pretentious affectation.
But there is a still darker, tragic aspect to the myth of mad genius: a justification for accepting corrosive, destructive, boorish and unethical behavior. It starts with the familiar, “Well, that’s just Bob,” as co-founders, investors, board members and employees presume that confronting Bob will drive or force him out. “If we raise this [horrible behavior/terrible attitude/unethical action] with Bob,” the rationalization begins, “he’ll leave and he is the only one who [knows everything/has the expertise/understands how the system works]. If he left, we’d lose [customers/credibility/employees/investors/face] and we’d have to [start over/shut the company down]. We need to [ignore it/accept it/embrace it/pretend it doesn’t exist] and hope [it will resolve itself/Bob will change].”
“There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.” -John Ruskin
Bob’s voluntary or involuntary departure may indeed bring the company down and, according to another mad genius, Hamlet, “There’s the rub.” First, any business singularly driven by or dependent on the whims, moods or presence of one person is not any kind of company, but a single person’s avocation masquerading as a startup.
Worse, tolerance of a Bad Mad Genius (BMG) is a tacit endorsement of him and signal to everybody within or around that company that it’s OK to mimic his behavior too. Casual viewing of CNN, MSNBC or Fox will remind us of this truth. The startup leadership’s most precious resource, credibility, erodes slowly, then quickly and has all but evaporated by the time meaningful action is taken. By then, the BMG has wrought damage whose negative aftereffects last months and sometimes years.
Avoiding the destruction of BMG is not about figuring out how to control him but building a company where his presence or absence won’t ultimately matter that much. That is not to say that talent going out the door is irrelevant. Quite the contrary, doing everything you can to create a culture and work experience where everyone wants to work is “Great Startups 101.” But though a mad genius leaving will negatively impact on the company, it should be, by design, a flesh wound and not a mortal one. When that happens, the company and not one person chooses its fate.