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What Stephen Hawking Can Teach You About Leadership

What Stephen Hawking Can Teach You About Leadership

I’m a science geek. Whether it’s black holes, time travel, or the 10th dimension… it gives me the warm fuzzies. So naturally, last evening I spent geeking out on Netflix and caught “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.” From the big bang to the formation of black holes, the show was a mind-blowing journey to the beginning of time and back.

Being also a business geek, I couldn’t help seeing the similarities between how the best leaders model their actions and how the Universe works. The similarities are striking, and this article highlights a few of them.

Perfection Kills Progress

One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist. — Stephen Hawking

In the early development of the universe, during the period of expansion after the big bang, the first hydrogen atoms began to form. And fortunately for us, they were scattered unevenly throughout space when they did. This allowed gravity to start pulling the atoms together into larger and larger clusters, which eventually formed the first stars and the rest of the mass in the Universe.

If these newly forged hydrogen atoms were perfectly spaced apart, gravity would not have pulled them together. The first stars would have never formed, there would be no light, and nothing else in the Universe would exist. Space would be complete darkness scattered with a perfectly spaced grid of hydrogen atoms.

This spoke volumes to me about leadership. For example, if you needed to be 100% certain that your business would not fail, would you have started it? I’m willing to guess the answer is no. The fact is that nothing will ever be perfect in business, life, or leadership, and expecting it to be will only hold you back.

But the truth is, most leaders suffer from some form various of perfectionitis. It’s a natural desire of our rational minds to have order and certainty. One well-known example of this is “analysis paralysis”, where a problem is analyzed endlessly, holding up key decisions and initiatives from ever coming to fruition. Another is fear of rejection, where the person has a debilitating fear that what they do won’t be good enough. It’s probably safe to say that most entrepreneurs suffer from this to some degree.

When you’re faced with a challenging problem, just remember that a leader that does not make mistakes simply does not grow. While you can make an educated guess, you can’t predict everything. Eventually you will have to cross the line into unknown territory, and this line often appears much sooner than you think. When you come up to it, don’t be afraid to cross the boundary. Even if you fail, you will learn important lessons that will make next time much easier.

Establish The Basic Laws… Then Let Go

The Universe is truly the ultimate design. With only a few basic laws and a whole lot of energy, everything as we know it was created. There was no master blueprint for anything. In fact, randomness and imperfection are key elements of the design – elements that allowed the most fascinating species and phenomena to evolve.

Likewise, some of the most successful and fastest growing businesses have been built in the same way. They followed a modern formula for leadership which, if you think about it, is really modeled after how the Universe itself was built:

  1. Establish a few basic laws (core values)

  2. Put the right elements in place (training & resources)

  3. Add a lot of energy (high performing people).

If you subscribe to Jim Collins‘ ideas you’ll know what I’m getting at here. Get the right people on the bus, give them some basic traffic rules and a destination to reach, and get the hell out of the way. Chances are, the bus will get where it’s going, and if you have the right people, it will get there 10 minutes early to boot.

Proof of this concept is not difficult to find. Such self-organizing, innovative companies are leading the market today. Look at Google, Facebook or 37signals. But perhaps my favourite example of this isn’t in business, per se, but in commercial flight. Airline pilots need to follow the strictest of rules, in certain areas, to ensure the safety of their passengers and others in the air. Taxiing on the runway, takeoff, altitude, bearing, and landing are all tightly controlled. And rightfully so, because one mistake here can mean disaster. But when the pilot is in the air, they are behind the wheel. At this point, nobody has more control of the plane and its fate than they do. And rightfully so—this is what they are trained to do, and can make the calls that will ensure their passengers arrive on-time and safely. Up there, nobody can predict anything, and fortunately for us travelers, nobody tries to.

The Biggest Stars Explode

Stars are giant nuclear furnaces that burn hydrogen to produce helium. As a star burns, it’s mass increases and so does its gravitational force—causing the center to compact tighter and tighter. During this process, heavier elements start to form—metals like iron, gold, and zinc. Eventually there comes a point where the star grows so big that it’s own gravitational force causes it to implode. This implosion causes a supernova which sends pieces of the star all over the galaxy.

When growing a business, remember that being large doesn’t necessarily mean being successful. There comes a point where the sheer mass of a company becomes too large for it to be effective. Like the heavy metals inside of a star, bureaucracy builds layer by layer into a large immovable crust at its core. And like a star that starts cooling, the company loses its ability to burn brightly, innovate and keep up with smaller competitors—until eventually revenues implode and it supernovas in glorious bankruptcy.

Maybe the true moral of the story is that nothing lasts forever? But if you can help it, strive to burn brightly. Focus on profits and innovation, not growth for the sake of growth. This is one area where behaving exactly like the Universe may not be beneficial to your success.

The Only Constant is Change

Generally speaking, there are no absolutes in the Universe beyond change. Everything is relative—even space and time. But you can always count on things to change. Leaders that understand and embrace this fact will prosper and grow. That’s why it’s often said, if you’re not changing, you’re dying.

A fantastic example of a business embracing change is Vase Software. They started out as a video game company called Virtual Adventures. They developed a video game and in the process of doing so, created a way to securely transfer their game files over the Internet. The game failed, but they recognized that the encryption technology they developed was some of the strongest they’ve ever seen. They scrapped game development and re-structured themselves as an information security company specializing in cryptography. Recently they launched an international contest to try to crack their encryption software. Talk about embracing change and going where the market takes you.

The lesson is that with change comes opportunity—so keep your eyes peeled. Success may be right under your nose.