Everything You Need to Know About Leadership You Learned in Physics Class
A Note From The Editor
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The traditional liberal arts curriculum I pursued in college made me neither liberal nor an artist, but it at least got me out of serious science class.
In retrospect, that was a shame, because I've come to view science with a deep reverential love, mysterious and enticing, more akin to Quixote and Dulcinea than Joanie and Chachi. It's beyond my ken to actually dabble in it. The closest I get to being a mad scientist is in mixing the perfect Maker's Mark Manhattan (becoming an even madder one by the time I mix my third). As for physics, the world saw the apple fall, but only Issac Newton asked why... and I promptly ordered another piece of cobbler.
But it occurs to me that science -- and physics in particular -- offers valuable lessons in leadership and people. Though it's common to think in the startup world that founders make bad CEOs because they are engineers and scientists, not trained managers, the truth is that business history is filled with examples of smart scientists (Gates, Musk, Andreessen) who are world-class leaders.
Here's what they paid attention to in Physics 101. Consider it a cheat-sheet for your AP exam or your next CEO gig.
Newton's First Law.
You may remember this as the law of inertia. A body that's at rest remains at rest. One that is in motion stays in motion, at the same speed and direction. Both only change when acted upon with an unbalanced force.
No need to call your therapist, but you have to be that unbalanced force to be a leader. It amazes me how much intertia there is in organizations. Unmotivated employees, projects addled by overplanning and under-execution, instransigent customers and stale brands. You have to get the proverbial ball rolling.
And you have to know when to change that ball's speed and direction. Sometimes, growth is too overheated. Other times, projects or products that have garnered a ton of resources need to be re-assessed. Often, the speed and commitment of the team is great, but you need a "pivot." It is your job as a manager and leader to make that all happen.
Newton's Second Law.
Force is a function of the mass of an object multiplied by its acceleration. This hit home for me in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas before it landed. Why did that tragedy occur? Well, a seemingly lightweight piece of foam, propelled at rocket-booster speed, smacked into the shuttle on takeoff, breaking off chunks of the vital heat-shield tiles that should have protected the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. If you had thrown that foam against a wall, it wouldn't have chipped your drywall. But, because of Newton's Second Law and plentiful jet fuel, it destroyed a spacecraft.
In business, we don't like to think in terms of "force," but we need to. When it comes to initiatives or new products, the force they have on our teams, our boards, our partners and our customers depends on how big we make them and how fast we bring them to market. Have a new app? It better be big because you are one of a zillion out there competing for customers' attention. It also better be fast because somewhere another team is working on a competitive product and you run the risk of losing any first-mover advantage.
Newton's Third Law.
It's a credit to Issac's genius that the first three examples are all his laws. (Thank G-d the apple didn't give the poor guy a concussion.) The third law is probably his most well-known: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When two bodies come into contact with one another, there is a reaction between them. When you sit on a comfy couch, you are exerting a downward force. The couch, in turn, is exerting an upward force.
The harder you push, the harder the reaction. Good leaders know the value of consensus-building and team buy-in, rather than imposition of will. Inspiration is much easier than enforcement. It helps build morale, leads to better collaboration and often makes large initiatives easier to implement.
That isn't to say that you should avoid making decisions on your own. We have to trust our guts and our experience sometimes. Endless consensus-building often produces very little decisive action. (The length of discussion of an issue is inversely proportional to the effectiveness of the final decision. Let's call that Hennessey's First Law.) But, getting buy-in from employees for a change is important, as is listening to your partners and customers. Force something down their throat and they'll force it right back at you.
"Heat," as we think of it, doesn't actually exist (not surprising after the winters we've had on the East Coast). Rather, what we think of as heat is actually just the transfer of thermal energy -- or the internal energy of the underlying atoms and molecules -- moving from one body to another. Thermal energy always moves from higher temperature to lower temperature. When you put an ice cube in a Hendrick's and tonic, the thermal energy of the higher-temperature gin moves into the ice cube. The "cooling" of your drink happens because heat leaves the liquid, not because cold leaves the cube.
Put simply, you need to be hot stuff to export your energy to those around you. Leaders need to have a ton of energy, be always "on," and, most of all, export that energy to their teams and customers. It can be exhausting, but it is necessary. If you are "cold," you produce nothing. Your temperature always needs to higher than your direct reports, key customers -- everyone. Radiate it. Conduct it. That's why you were chosen for the leadership role in the first place.
The Law of Conservation of Energy.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change from one form to another. A cat sleeping on the armrest of your couch has potential energy. When the cat falls to the floor in the middle of a dream, potential energy is transferred to kinetic energy (and a YouTube video is born).
Think of this in terms of your team and how you manage employees. There is tremendous energy inside everyone. Every employee has value. The trick is in turning that potential into something meaningful. This could be hiring an executive coach to work with high-potential executives. Or promoting star employees frequently. Or even in investing in continuing education.
What's more, think about this law when you evaluate underperformers. Someone may have great potential but she is in the wrong role. See if converting her potential energy into something meaningful can happen if you simply change job functions.
Work, in physics, only occurs when an object is moved. The effect of that energy to move an object is known as the Work-Energy Theorem. If you stood outside of a brick building and pushed on it all day long, you might describe that as hard work, but it isn't actually work unless the building moves.
You need make things move. Many times, businesses and their executives get bogged down in projects that take a lot of time and resources but don't move the brick wall. That isn't work. It's madness.
The best work is the kind that makes everything around it move effortlessly. Focus your energy and time on those projects, systems and people that can be moved. Enjoy the motion, and the benefits accrued from it.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the best way to manage. But it certainly helps to think like one.