Steven Westlund is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading. He is the Director of Enterprise Applications Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. His essay first appeared as a leadership program reflection earlier this year. [Steve may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
A few weekends ago, my wife and I watched Alexandra Dean’s documentary, Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story. I think this film relates well to Brian McDonald’s recent guest Tuesday Reading, The Leader’s Role in Creating an Inclusive and Engaging Work Environment. In the essay, Brian wrote that IF we want people to ascribe to the philosophy that anyone can lead from anywhere, the environment needs to be conducive not exclusive. So, here’s the story.
Most of us remember Hedy Lamarr as the beautiful actress and Hollywood star who came to America after fleeing Austria and the Nazis just before the start of World War II. But, there’s another part of the story. It wasn’t that long ago that the public began to discover this other side of Hedy. She was a brilliant technical innovator. Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil invented frequency hopping, otherwise known as spread spectrum radio. Their invention is the foundation for the secure digital communications and comforts that we enjoy today. They could not have envisioned the impact it would have in the future. Their intent was to provide the Navy with a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes to help the Allies win the war.
Lamarr and Antheil seem like an unlikely pair to come up with such a revolutionary innovation. They were not engineers. When I saw the film I realized that this gave them an advantage. How? They had the creative freedom to think outside the box. Lamarr and Antheil synthesized the concept of frequency hopping from the way synchronized player pianos work. Brilliant! So, what happened when Lamarr tried to give her invention to the Navy? They rejected it. The naval officer told her to sell war bonds if she wanted to help the war effort and leave the guidance systems to the Navy. Because she was an alien, the government also seized her patent and locked it away in a top-secret vault for over a decade. Lamarr’s work was eventually rediscovered and put to use by the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. By then the patent had expired, so she never received any compensation. It wasn’t until just before Lamarr died at the turn of the century that she was even recognized for her contribution.
We have come a long way since the 1940s. But, as Brian pointed out in his essay, too often the tendency at an unconscious level is to listen to individuals who see things as we do or hire people in our own image. (See the March 6, 2018 Tuesday Reading, Bias.) Work groups can, and often do, develop norms or patterns that are unknowingly excluding others.
Viewing the documentary and reflecting on this theme brought back a memory from my own career. It was 1999, about the time Lamarr was recognized, that I was leading a team of software developers working on the Student Information System at Washington University. We were given a project to replace the hard copy photo book of the incoming freshman class with an online version. While analyzing the problem, Jason, the lead developer, discovered that there was a lot of social interaction among students around the book. Concerned that this would be lost in an online version, he researched, designed and implemented a social networking component to fill the gap. The idea was to enable students who viewed the book online to link and communicate with one another. We called the application Faces.
When we demoed Faces to our leadership team, they expressed apprehension. The problem was the social networking component, which was a novel concept at the time. We had nothing like this in our application portfolio. There also was a concern that the usage of this feature could grow beyond the capacity of our network and computing infrastructure to support it. So, I was directed to remove it from Faces immediately. How did I respond? Even though I saw merit in the solution, I did not support my team and argue why the social networking features were important. I did not identify ways to mitigate the perceived risks. I did not recognize Jason and the team for taking the initiative and developing this innovation. Instead, I just delivered the bad news to the developers and made sure social networking was removed from Faces before it went to production. I did not envision the impact this type of application would have on our society in the future.
This experience and the Hedy Lamarr story prompt me to raise the following questions. As leaders, do we provide real opportunities for our teams to take the initiative and lead from anywhere? Do we welcome different perspectives, even when they challenge the status quo or our current ways of thinking? Do we encourage, recognize and reward innovation? Are we willing to accept the risks associated with change?
Like Steve, I and very likely many of you have a “Faces” story where we did not step up and support our team as they stepped up, beyond our expectations. This make’s the questions Steve asks timely and important to each of us. To emphasize that, I’m going to take the liberty of making them personal:
- Do I provide real opportunities for my teams to take initiative?
- Do I welcome different perspectives?
- Do I encourage, recognize, and reward innovation?
- Am I willing to accept the risks associated with change?
These are really good questions, ones that I challenge myself and you to take time to reflect upon. And, and then find ways to change the way we lead.
Make it a great week! . . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.