Let Thoroughbreds Run

 

People capable of “doing their own thinking” are critical to high-performing organizations. Inviting, understanding and encouraging them is a vital function in leading change. The staff  you select and the conditions they work in are factors you can influence.

The Capecchi Story

As a toddler, Mario Capecchi recalls his mother taken from their home in the Italian Alps and sent to a concentration camp. He was nearly four years old. His mother, a poet and antifascist who would not marry Mario’s abusive father, had expected troubles. She had made advance plans with a family nearby who took in Mario. However, before age five, Mario was on his own. For years he survived as a street urchin. Most of one year he was hospitalized – likely with typhoid. At nine, miraculously, his mother found him. One might guess this would shape a resilient character.

Determined to study molecular biology, Capecchi went to Harvard to learn from James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA. After some time, however, he decided that Harvard was not hospitable. The work environment limited him. Eventually, he landed at the University of Utah where a new department was being created.

In 1980, he was a grantee applicant with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – a government entity that provides resources for science research. Capecchi identified three projects. Two were likely prospects, the third was a huge leap. He wanted to show it was possible to alter a specific gene in a mouse’s DNA. The difficulty of this work was of enormous – like finding and changing a single sentence in eighty large encyclopedias. It was a daunting and improbable search and replace task.

The NIH responded to Capecchi’s third plan as far fetched; but offered resources for the solid, incremental proposals. Ignoring their guidance, Capecchi took the money and put it in his risky gene-targeting research. He gambled his staff, lab, reputation and career. In 2007, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on mouse genes.  When the NIH renewed his grants the expert panel indicated: “We are glad you didn’t follow our advice.”

Control Can Oppress

Experienced and secure leaders build great teams comprised of individuals that feel capable about the expectation and authority to carry substantial responsibilities. Skilled staff appreciate the chance to test themselves and others in delivering results. However, common complaints by talented people often include a supervisor, colleague or boss with a focus on control. The selfish need for control creates problems in trust, feedback, collaboration and other vital features of healthy culture and savvy processes.

What lessons does Capecchi’s story offer?

Sometimes, managing and leading simply translates to enabling bright people with audacious ideas. Expecting both brilliant and stubborn in talent is too high a bar. Don’t block. Encourage and inspire new thinking. Let your thoroughbreds run.

 –Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

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